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Angel’s Den

Chapter One

Robert Frazer woke to the sound of a click in his ear.

"Get up, nice and slow," a faintly familiar voice demanded.

His heart began to pound like a cornered rabbit as his eyes shot open and he looked up at the man's face. Hardesty, wasn't it? The man who had tried to buy his journal.

Robert pulled back the covers and swung his legs over the side of the bed. He was only wearing drawers and felt the cold slap his body further awake. Quakes of fear filled him, rattling his bones and his teeth as he saw a chair had been dragged into the middle of his bed chamber floor. "Sit in the chair." Hardesty's voice growled.

Robert's face swung up toward the stocky man. The arm that held the gun bulged with muscle. He was pointing it right at him, cocked and ready to release its havoc on his body. "You can have it," Robert pleaded as he stood up. "Please, I will give you the journal."

"You got that right." Hardesty's big head cocked to one side as an insidious smile flashed across his lips. "Now get into that chair and start talking."

Robert's feet shuffled against the rough wood floor as he made his way to the chair. Ever since the Lewis and Clark days, he had stiffness in his legs and feet every morning upon waking. But he didn't regret it. Those had been the best days of his life. Others called the journey the Corps of Discovery but to him it would always be two names, two men - Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. What they discovered was a vast land of here to unknown terrain graced with animal and man and water and lush vegetation. He hadn't been able to write it all down. He'd wanted to, but he hadn't been schooled in that way and he knew that those small, stilted entries in his journal had been just that. Small. But for some reason this man was determined to have his paltry efforts. Robert had already refused to sell it twice now. He should have known better. He should have recognized that look of confidence in Hardesty's eyes the last time he had come by and offered a small fortune for the book. He should have lied, told the man and his rich boss that he hadn't kept a journal.

He could lie now. The thought struck him. They would never find it if he didn't tell them where to look.

"Out with it then." Hardesty moved in front of him and pointed the gun toward his chest.

Robert swallowed hard and decided not to look at the gun. He had never been good at lying. It always came out as weak, his eyes darting about, his fingers curling into his palms; he'd never been able to fool his parents, that was certain. But this man didn't know him. "I buried it. Beneath the biggest oak tree on Fort Belle Fountaine's grounds, on the west side of the fort."

Hardesty's face grew red, a vein popping out on his forehead. "You buried it on the fort's grounds?" He said it as if he felt unbelief and rage at the possibility at the same time.

Robert looked up and met his eyes. "It seemed the safest place." They both knew it would be difficult for Hardesty or anyone to dig around the grounds without causing all sorts of questions. But - Hardesty might think he needed Robert to help find it which might be enough to save his life, for a little while anyway.

Hardesty must have thought differently as he circled around to the back of the chair and with a suddenness that sent new tremors though Robert's body, wrapped a cord around his throat. Robert's eyes bulged in shock and his hands reached up to claw at the rope as Hardesty leaned down and hissed into Robert's ear. "If you are lying I will cut up your body, piece by slow piece." He let the pressure of the cord ease enough for Robert to drag in a wheezing breath. "Are you lying, Frasier?"

Robert's heart felt ready to burst from his chest as he gasped out the truth. "It's at The Ace Saloon… in Margarite's room. Don't hurt her, please."

"That's better," the man purred into his ear as the cord slowly tightened.

The sound of Robert's rasping, choking gasps echoed through the room. He tried to fight, twisting in the chair, his legs kicking out as he struggled.

As the cord did its work, he faded into a twilight sense between life and death. His life became picture memories, blinks of time, there and then snapping away, fading . . . fading . . . fading. He saw the Missouri River and its brown, choppy flow that fought them every step of the way. The rocky cliff banks, the lush plant life of the prairie lands, the mountains of solid rock that they had somehow traversed, the great waterfalls, the winding Columbia River and finally the beach that led to the Pacific.

As the last threads of consciousness faded he saw Clark's face flash before his blurred vision. Robert had wanted to be like the strong, sure William Clark, but he never even came close. And then he saw Lewis. A little touched in the head but not in a stupid way. Robert never figured out if he liked him or despised him. But together, they were perfect. Together they had accomplished the impossible.

As the cord choked the last of his life from him, he grew very still and finally received the words he'd always wanted to write. Somehow he saw Lewis saying the words, saw him standing on his porch, crying out to Clark.

Where art thou?
I await you in the twilight of my distress
Come and save me
My friend
I watch for your shadowed form
Against the red of sun
I have set out the robe you love
My friend
Your face is all I long to see
It sets me free
That clear-eyed smile
Make the ghosts vanish
For awhile - stay
Bring back my peace
My friend
The sun - it fades so fast
Your voice grows ever dim
If you do not appear
I cannot bear
The rising of the same
Appear to me
My friend
Or I will be no more

Robert saw Lewis's face flash bright and then fade away into nothing and knew Lewis would be joining him in eternity soon.

St. Louis, Missouri
Territory - Summer of 1808

It was the perfect day. The sky haloed the gathering crowd in soft light, shining down from a flawless shade of blue. Fluffy, slow-moving clouds floated above their heads causing the children to look heavenward and point with pudgy fingers and delighted eyes.

"Look, it's an elephant!" Shouted a dark-haired boy.

"I see a ship." A girl exclaimed as she twirled slowly around her face toward the heavens.

The parents and grandparents looked up and remembered such innocent joy. Smiles were exchanged. Heads nodded in one accord. Not an insect buzzed, not a single ill wind blew against the piled-up hair, the decorated bonnets and staid hats, the opulent gowns and crisp coats. Yes, the assembly of the good people of St. Louis knew.

It was the perfect day, indeed.

Music began to play and, as if a cue from some long-forgotten lesson, the crowd quieted, found seats among the long rows of white-painted benches that had been carefully arranged so that each guest might have the best view. They faced a graceful alter of rosewood, the matching arch before it delicately carved with birds of paradise and lilies. Giant flower pots flanked the alter, overflowing with white lilies - the flower of purity, virginity, the meaning of it being "heaven with you." That's what her mother had said, anyway.

Emma stood at the end of the grassy isle and stared at all the people looking like colorful birds in their best summer finery. She inhaled the sweet scent of the lilies that rose and fell in the light breeze around them. Their heavy heads swayed and drooped from the pots and tall, slender vases at the end of each row of benches where the guests sat turned, their faces up and angled, all aglow toward her approaching figure.

She'd scoffed the need for a veil, wanting to see the proceedings that had taken months, possibly the entire year, for her mother to plan down to every minute detail. Her gaze darted from the crowd to the altar. Took in the preacher and the table in front of him where three white, lavender-scented candles, specially made by the apothecary's wife with exacting instructions, stood. It had come together so beautifully! All the flowers and the coordinating wedding costumes - and her dress! Emma could hardly believe she was standing in the awe of St. Louis's finest citizens in such a dress.

Mrs. Daring, Emma's mother, had been relentless in finding out the latest fashions from Paris. St. Louis might be the outermost gateway to the west, but it had its influential people, and Emma's mother knew all of them. Before long, she had a newspaper clipping of the most famous wedding of their day - the wedding of Napoleon Bonaparte to Josephine, sent from Emma's Aunt Violet who lived in Williamsburg and was rumored to have never thrown anything away in her life. Mrs. Daring had gone into spasms of delight upon opening the missive. Beyond that moment there was no stopping her. Emma's dress became a slightly scaled down version of none other than Empress Josephine's wedding gown. Made of white silk satin it was threaded with a long swirling strip of green embroidery down the front. The dress had puffed sleeves with more of the green threaded design at the edges, undersleeves that ended at the beginning of her fingertips with more scrolling embroidery, a high waist, just under her bosom, and a skirt that fell in graceful folds in the front. The back of the dress was elegantly simple, showing the upper part of her back. A green, satin ribbon encircled her high waist, tied in the back with the ends just touching the beginnings of the short train.

The first time she'd seen what her mother had dreamed up she'd gasped. The first day she'd tried it on for a fitting, she and her mother had cried. As she looked over at her mother, Emma suddenly wondered whether her decision to reject the veil had been wise. A veil might be just the thing to hide such happy tears.

Mr. Daring reached Emma's side. She turned to look up at him and grasped hold of her father's frail arm, feeling the bones beneath the thin fabric of his suit. She'd been a late addition to her parent's marriage, the only addition, and they'd showered on her, since that moment of her first breath, everything a wealthy couple who never thought to have a child could rain down on a child. So badly had they wanted to keep her with them that Emma had never been pressured to marry and was now twenty-five years old. People might have thought her haughty for turning down several offers for her hand in marriage, but once they met her, they couldn't help but soften their opinion. Emma Daring was considered too kind and caring to leave her aging parents.

"Just so." Her father said with water in his eyes as he looked at her.

His eyes were a washed-out blue, as if they'd seen too many years and had faded with age along with the grandeur and the hardship he had witnessed. They were filled with wisdom though, and as ever, love for her.

Yes, a veil would have been a nice addition, Emma thought to herself, as tears filled and threatened to overflow. She hadn't even made it down the aisle yet. She hadn't even mustered the courage to look at him! The man who had swept into her life and changed everything.

A song began. A harpist strummed something her mother had chosen. Emma's glance swung to the seat where her mother sat, so prim and stately in her lavender gown with its matching bonnet of deeper purple. Their eyes locked as Emma's throat made a sound that she quickly squelched.

Their footsteps started down the grassy, petal-strewn isle. Emma looked down and saw her delicately made, satin clad shoes. They were her only insistence against her mother's wishes. Pink. A soft pink with ribbons and lace and satin bows. She had loved those shoes more than the dress though that was a secret she would never reveal to anyone. More than the crown of emeralds in her hair that she knew glittered every time she turned her head. She smiled thinking of how she'd tried the shoes on and watched the satin gleam back at her in her bedchamber mirror. She had stood there several moments admiring the turn of her ankle, watching the sheen of the fabric glisten as she turned her foot this way and that, running her fingertip along the height of the satin-covered heel. Now, she almost giggled, happiness rising like a giant bubble in her throat as she walked arm in arm with her father, remembering when she'd lifted the hem of her dress high enough to see the tops of her knee stockings where the garter met and how she'd stared in the mirror at her legs in these shoes and wondered what he might think of such a sight.

Suppressing her excitement she finally looked up at him. Eric Montclaire. The prized catch west of the Application Mountains. He was "ungodly handsome" they said. Every woman who uttered his name said it in a breathless way, no matter their age. He was wealthy and growing more so by the part-ownership of a new trading company. He'd promised her a house . . . a plantation if she wanted it. A mansion on a hill. A comfortable life filled with children and him, he'd promised her him - a man who could make anything happen.

She looked toward him for the first time this day and locked gazes with him. The sight of him, with his blondish-brown hair, piercing blue eyes and broad shouldered stance sent an immediate shiver down her spine, making her forget everything, everyone, even her prized, pink high-heeled shoes. She stumbled, just barely, at the passion glaring across the yellow-bathed expanse from his eyes to hers. No one knew she nearly fell, save her father, who quickly grasped harder to her arm and made it seem like he'd been the one to stumble. And then, there they were. Arrived. At the altar.

At the beginnings of their future together.

Her father stopped them, took firm hold of her arm, his fingers tight for a moment and then slowly, gradually, he let go. He nodded toward Eric, who came down the one step of the raised platform and grasped her arm just where her father had left it. She felt passed between these two men, as a prize, as a possession. She looked up and into the eyes of her new keeper.

Silly thought, that. A keeper? She breathed a deep breath, felt her mouth lift into the veriest smile, the smile of a happy bride, and then took the final steps to the altar where they stood under the elegant arch.

The preacher began the ceremony which would forever make him - hers and her - his. Emma listened intently to the words as Preacher Hollis read one of her favorite passages from the Bible: And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being. But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man's ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, "This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called 'woman,' for she was taken out of man."

Eric squeezed her hand and then together they walked to the table and each picked up a slim, flickering candle. At the same time they tilted each flame, representing their individual lives, toward the larger candle in the middle, which represented their new life together. Emma's hand shook with suppressed gladness as she held her flame to Eric's. The wick of the large candle caught and a larger, brighter flame burst to life. Then they turned to each other and, as her mother had instructed them, Eric leaned over to blow out Emma's candle, while Emma leaned to blow out Eric's. A rush of joy constricted her throat.

They were no longer two, they were truly one.

They sat down the slim candles, turned and stepped back to their place where the ceremony continued. Now they would receive the blessing.

Emma turned toward the man who was soon be her husband, her gaze rising from his white, starched shirt front, up to his neck, where the dark stubble began. Did he know? She flushed thinking of it and then quickly squashed the feeling of wanting to reach up and draw her fingertips along the line of his throat, up to his jaw and then run her fingers through his curling hair. Did he know how beautiful he was?

Pressing her lips together, she stilled her body, made herself look up into the depths of his eyes. They were gray-blue and like a glowing, silent moon. They spoke to the truth everyone said about him - a man who knew what he wanted, got what he wanted. A force to be reckoned with.

And he wanted her. She still couldn't fathom it.

Preacher Hollis came forward to bless their union. He placed his hands on each of their heads, causing them to close their eyes and bow their heads. Preacher Hollis was a circuit preacher, visiting St. Louis only every third Sunday, but the only man Emma had ever seen her father take any stock in. Mr. John Daring saw the world in concrete figures of numerals, cost versus gain, astute investments, even more astute alliances, but when it came to religion, he preferred raised hands in worship and the fervent voice of this circuit preacher to the formality of the city's Catholic church.

Emma looked briefly at Preacher Hollis's face, hearing his ringing prayer as a mere echo against the grandness of the presence of the man she was fortunate enough to marry. Eric Montclaire. How lucky was she? How fortunate among women? How blessed.

Lord, thank you. I don't deserve such a man. I am not beautiful. I am not grand. I cannot imagine why he chose me. He could have had anyone.

At the collective "Amen" she opened her eyes and looked at her new husband like a desert wanderer would look at a cup of water. His coat was a perfect dark blue against a snowy white shirt and cravat. His skin was fair and supple; her gaze drank him in . . . what must it be like to touch? His mouth was curved in a half smile, as if he'd won some battle and was savoring the victory hours later. His cheeks were high and imposing, his hair fell back from his forehead in waves of his gold-streaked brown. She looked back into his eyes. She had first fallen in love with his eyes. They were large and wide and passion filled. No matter what he spoke of, from the weather to the running of his trading company or the flower he had most recently plucked for her. A gray-blue that at times looked silver - determined, sure, passionate eyes. When he looked at her, into her ordinary, cornflower-blue eyes, she felt engulfed.

Emma took a long, deep breath of the fresh air as she gazed into those dark, smoky blue depths. The words of the preacher rolled over her like gentle waves. Wave after wave of deep voiced convictions that said she would be forever tied to this man. That she would bear his children, God willing, that she would bath his fevered brow when he was sick and he would sit at her table when he was well. That she would be everything anybody human could be for another living soul. And that he would be that for her.

"Thank you, God." She mouthed silently as he slipped a massive sapphire, the color of his eyes, on her finger to claim her his own.

Angel’s Den
by by Jamie Carie