Fayetteville, North Carolina, 1852
Silas McRae crashed through the moonlit cornfield and burst out the other side panting like a hounded deer. Free of the noisy stalks, he lit out at full speed then tripped and kissed the bottom of an irrigation canal. Cursing his foolhardy decision to return to Fayetteville in the first place, he lifted his mud-smeared face and took stock of the situation. Not one soul of his band of misfits lurked across the wide expanse of newly mowed grounds, and no one hunkered along the tree line past the nearby manor. They'd cut out on him when the heat turned up. As simple as that.
A surge of warmth crept up his neck at the thought of the skirmish he'd just dodged. Every lead slug exploding from the end of a scattergun had missed him cold. Every indignant hand on the scruff of his neck had fallen away as he ran.
By thunder! He loved the thrill of the chase. The bulging knapsack of loot under his arm only topped the cake.
His roaming gaze eagerly swept the stately main house, and he closed his eyes for fear their sudden twinkle might be spotted from afar.
It appeared his night of plunder wasn't done. What treasure lay behind those gilded walls? Beckoning...
As stealthy as a panther, Silas crept toward the siren's call. With any luck, he'd have a king's portion to lay at Odie's feet on his return. His lovely wife would be most proud.
He angled across the courtyard to the back side of the house and came to the first window. Squinting in disbelief, he watched the curtains gently sway. With a sense of destiny, he raised the sash higher and peered inside. Cocking his head, his trained ears strained for the slightest noise.
Smiling, he swung his lithe body over the sash and soundlessly touched the floor. When his eyes adjusted to the meager light, he gasped. Trinkets and charms of every description lined the top of the polished dresser. On one side a solid brass bell, a fine kerosene lantern on the other. In the center, a delicate silver tray held an infant's brush and comb along with matching vessels of various shapes and sizes.
Fanciful folderal, his for the taking.
He placed the lantern near the window to snatch up as he slipped out. But first...
Stuffing a crocheted doily into the mouth of the bell to silence the clapper, he opened his sack to add it and the silver pieces to his collection. Rubbing his hands together, he took inventory of the dusky room to see what might be next.
A glint of reflected moonlight caught his eye from across the room. He tiptoed toward it, amazed that the shimmer seemed suspended in midair. Closer inspection revealed an item displayed on a glass-topped table.
A chill shot up his spine. Had he stumbled across Aladdin's magic cave?
The curious low-slung lamp had a long spout and ornate handle— fashioned of gold, if he knew his business. Breathless, he hefted it to test the weight and smiled.
Worth a fortune!
Rustling in the corner spun Silas toward the sound. More startled by what he saw than what he heard, he crept close for a better look. Heart racing, he parted the mosquito net draped around the crib and gazed at the unforeseen windfall.
A baby sat up in bed, propped by legs so fat they creased in impossible places. A white nightdress tucked under one side of its bum made it difficult for the little mite to stay upright. Struggling to keep its balance, the child stared at him with round, questioning eyes. Laying aside the lamp, Silas's hands inched forward, stopping when sudden creases feathered the delicate brow and the rosebud mouth puckered to cry.
Odie's words flew at him like darts from the shadowed corners.
"Promise me! Swear on your life you won't steal a babe and leave its mother with empty arms --- not even for me."
He straightened and patted the pudgy leg."S'alright, snippet. Don't aim to hurt you none."
With practiced hands, he eased the child down on the mattress, tucking the cover into the folds of its chubby neck. The delicate threads of the blanket were so fine, they snagged on the tips of his calloused fingers."There you are, little one," he cooed."All snug in your bed."
The baby blinked up with wary eyes.
Silas chuckled."Don't fret, now. Go on to sleep. Tomorrow's another day."
He carefully swept up the nearby bounty and bundled it into a spare knapsack. Satisfied, he nodded."Your husband's a man of his word, Odell McRae. What I take from this room will leave no empty arms behind."
Crossing to the door, he cast one last glance at the sleeping baby in the cradle and nodded."That's right, good wife. A man of his word."
Excerpted from RAIDER'S HEART: Backwoods Brides, #1 © Copyright 2011 by Marcia Gruver. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.