Excerpt from Color of the Wind
Boston. April, 1882.
Only her sister's deathbed request could have wrung this promise from her.
Ardith Merritt gripped her six-year-old nephew Khyber Northcross' hand, as she bustling him and her two other charges along the platform of Boston's busy train station. She'd never set eyes on these children until a fortnight before, but after Ariel's unexpected death, they become Ardith's responsibility—at least until she delivered them to the Wyoming Territory.
And their father.
"This way, children!" Ardith instructed slicing through the crowds like a ship through choppy seas. Around them engines huffed and wheezed. Bells clanged and conductors shouted destinations as fifteen-year-old China followed and Durban, who was eleven, brought up the rear.
Once they reached their train, Ardith scanned the area for the gentleman who'd agreed to see them off. At the sight of Gavin Rawlinson, Ardith smiled and let reached up to adjust her hat.
Silly old maid, she thought, taking a fancy to someone like him. Still, it was good of Gavin to see them off, and far more than most publishers would do for one of their authors.
"Here are the claim checks for the children's trunks." Rawlinson extended four shiny brass tags. "You're sure that's all you wanted checked?"
"All I need is in this valise," Ardith answered. "Once we reach Rock Creek Station, I'll turn the children over to their father and board the next train home."
"You don't even want to see the ranch your brother-in-law is managing?"
Ardith shook her head, thinking it was not so much the ranch she was loath to see.
"Well, I'm glad you'll soon be back," Gavin went on. "We're eager to put the new 'Auntie Ardith' book on sale, since the others have done so well."
Ardith had been pleased that the animal stories she'd written and illustrated had been so well received. But she was even more grateful that publishing them had brought Gavin into her life.
He was breathtakingly handsome standing there, his golden eyes crinkling at the corners and his chestnut-brown hair fluttering in the April wind. He was exactly the kind of man she wished she'd meet when she was younger.
"Aunt Ardith!" China cried out. "Look where Khy's got off to!"
Only then did Ardith realize that when she adjusted her had she'd relinquished her hold on the six-year-old. She turned to find him standing on the top of the pile of coal in the tender.
"I'm king of the hill," he crowed, his smile as wide and dangerous as a pirate's. And so like his father's.
"Khyber Northcross!" she cried. "Come down this minute."
Before he could obey, the concussion of cars being coupled to the end of the train set everything shimmying. Coal skittered beneath Khy's feet and he tumbled into the tender sending up a puff of dust.
"Khyber, are you hurt, child?" Ardith called in alarm.
The train's fireman appeared a moment later with Khy in tow. "This yours, ma'am?"
"No," Ardith answered, seeing the child was coal dust from head to toe. "Yes. He's my nephew."
"Seems your nephew needs washing up," the man observed.
"I thank you for rescuing him."
Once Khy reached the platform Ardith gripped him by the scruff of his neck. "Oh, Khy!" she scolded. "Can't you stay out of trouble for five minutes?"
In answer, Khyber waggled his blackened hands in his sister's face. When China squealed and boarded the train, Khy turned to his brother.
"What would Mother say?" Durban asked with cool disdain.
At the mention of his mother, Khy burst into tears.
Gavin maneuvered both boys up the steps to the sleeper car, leaving Ardith to bid him good-bye. For an instant she wondered what he would do if she bussed his cheek by way of thanks.
It was a silly notion for a woman like her to be having, she told herself. A woman noted for her mind, not her beauty. A woman four years older than the man she fancied.
Reluctantly Ardith mounted the steps, too.
"Are you sure you'll be all right traveling alone with those three?" Gavin asked.
"All I have to do is get them to Wyoming and turn the children over to their father," she answered with more confidence than she felt.
He chuckled softly. "Of course you will; you're 'Auntie Ardith.' You know about children, don't you?"
Before she could deny it, Gavin handed her the wicker hamper he'd been carrying. "It's some sandwiches and things I thought might make your journey easier."
"Thank you, Gavin."
"I imagine you'll have harrowing tales to tell me when you get back."
Before she could answer, the train began to move. Though she knew she was a fool, she stood and waved until Gavin was out of sight.
Once inside the railroad car, she found China settled and chatting with the man across the aisle. Durban had his nose jammed in a book and Khyber sat with tears streaking through the soot on his cheeks.
Only the promise to her sister could have brought Ardith to this, chaperoning these three waifs to Wyoming—and confronting their father after all these years.