Cheyenne, Wyoming Territory , October 1886
It was only the wind.
Charlotte Harding wrapped her arms around her waist, trying to convince herself there was no reason to tremble like a cottonwood leaf in a storm. The creaks that had wakened her were simply the building shuddering from the force of the wind. That was all. No one had broken in. No one had found her. She and David were safe. But the brave thoughts had no effect. They never did.
With a sigh, she fumbled to light the lamp. As the soft yellow flame chased away the darkness, she slid her feet into slippers and padded across the room. Perhaps it was foolish. She could see that the intruder had been nothing more than a figment of her imagination, the product of her fears. Her bedchamber was empty, except for David. Sweet David. The love of her life.
Charlotte stood at the side of his crib, looking down at the red hair so like his father’s. Other than his eyes, which were the same shade of brown as hers, her son was the image of his father. The trembling that she’d managed to quell returned as thoughts of David’s father and the fears that always accompanied those thoughts assailed her once again. Taking a deep breath to soothe her ragged breathing, Charlotte shook her head. She had to stop this worrying. It had been almost a year since she’d moved to Cheyenne, and no one had come looking for her and David. She had done everything she could to ensure that no one would know she had once lived at Fort Laramie as the wife of First Lieutenant Jeffrey Crowley. What she feared most would not happen. The baron would not find them.
Though the lamp that she held over the crib did not disturb him, David stirred, perhaps alerted by the sound of her breathing or the scent of her toilet water. “Mama,” he murmured as he held out his arms.
Charlotte smiled and set the lamp on the floor. She knew what her son wanted. Slowly, she stroked the length of each of his arms, then let him grasp her hands. “Yes, David, Mama’s awake, but you need to go to sleep.” Crooning softly, she moved his arms back to his side and pressed a kiss to his forehead. “Sleep now.”
As his breathing became regular, Charlotte’s smile faltered. Today was her son’s first birthday. Though she intended to celebrate only that wonderful event, she could not forget that today was also the anniversary of Jeffrey’s death and the day her life had changed forever. Pampered, coddled Charlotte Crowley was gone, replaced by Charlotte Harding, a woman who had learned that while life could be more difficult than she had thought possible, it had many rewards. Though this year had been far different from her dreams, Charlotte could not regret what it had brought. She had new friends and a new life in a new city. She had learned that she could be self-sufficient. Best of all, she had kept her son safe. It was worth the lies.