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From New York Times bestselling author Kat Martin comes the spellbinding historical romance that launched her remarkable career.
Mandy Ashton fled a stifling frontier existence for the glittering social whirl of Sacramento City, California’s state capital, trading childhood innocence for a woman’s burning desire. Though it’s risky to masquerade as her flighty cousin, Julia, Mandy is determined to give her cousin a chance at happiness with the man she loves. But Mandy is hardly faint of heart—proven time and again on a journey fraught with deadly adventure and sublime temptation.
Travis Langley, known by his Indian name, Hawk, is a white man raised by the Cheyenne, a man trying to make peace with his dual heritage. The last thing he needs is a job chaperoning Julia Aston, the California governor’s spoiled daughter. But Mandy—posing as Julia—is spirited, captivating, and irresistibly sensuous. By journey’s end, Mandy and Hawk have become helpless prisoners of a smoldering passion that nothing can kill—except, perhaps, the secret Mandy has guarded so carefully throughout the arduous days and passionate nights of their long, magnificent passage.
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Excerpt From Magnificent Passage
Julia folded another blouse and laid it atop the other articles in the trunk. She and Mandy were trying to select only the items Julia would need for her elopement—to Julia, “necessity” meant at least one steamer trunk.
“Jason’s so nervous he can hardly eat,” Julia said. “I think he would have moved his leave forward if the fort weren’t so darned short-handed. He’s had that wagon he borrowed packed for three days.” Her clothes were strewn all over Mandy’s bedroom.
“Well, he only has to wait one more day.” Mandy handed her cousin a red plaid dress, one of the few practical dresses Julia owned. “Then as soon as you two get far enough away, you can get married. You’ll be Mrs. Jason Michaels.”
“Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Mrs. Jason Michaels. Oh, Mandy, I can’t wait.” Julia’s face glowed happily, like a little girl whose secret wish was about to come true. Mandy wondered if her cousin’s bright cheeks reflected her enthusiasm for getting married—or her anticipation of the honeymoon ahead. She felt her own cheeks redden at the thought.
“I really think we’ve done a good job of planning so far,” Julia said. “If my calculations are correct, my father’s men probably won’t even get here for another week. With our head start, your three-week trip, and the weeks it will take the men to return and restart the search, Jason and I ought to have plenty of time to get married—and enough time alone for Father to worry I might be pregnant.”
Julia smiled as if Mandy were a naive child, and shook her head. “Sometimes, Mandy, I just don’t know about you.”
Mandy refused to be ruffled.
Julia packed a lacy chemise, then sniffed a bar of honeysuckle soap Mandy had given her as a present and packed it away. Suddenly Julia giggled.
“Do you remember the time we put the Chinese firecrackers in old Mrs. Finch’s stove?
Mandy laughed. “‘We’ didn’t put the firecrackers in the stove—you did! But it certainly was funny. Mrs. Finch kept saying, ‘What did I put in those pies?’ She actually thought she’d made the stove explode!”
Mandy sank down on the bed and wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. She looked over at the younger girl.
“I’m going to miss you, cousin.”
She and Julia hugged, knowing it would be months, maybe even longer, before they would see each other again. But there was no turning back now. Mandy wondered briefly at the path each had chosen.
She glanced over Julia’s shoulder, her gaze drawn to the street outside the bedroom window. A man in buckskins and another in a dusty black suit were being pointed toward the house. Their horses, well lathered, looked as though they’d been ridden hard.
“When you get to—”
“Julia!” Mandy interrupted. “Look at those two men over there.” She pointed down the street. “They’re coming toward the house. You don’t suppose? . . . Surely your father’s men couldn’t be here yet!” Mandy peered back out the window.
“Oh, my Lord!” Julia shrieked, quickly counting on her fingers the weeks since she’d first written her father. “If he wasted no time, if he was determined from the start—it might be them!”
The words sent Mandy into a panic. She ran to the window, wringing her hands. Beads of perspiration gathered at her temples. What had she gotten herself into? How could she have ever agreed to Julia’s plan? She closed her eyes and slowly opened them again. The men were still coming toward the house—and getting closer.
“We have to be calm, Mandy,” Julia kept saying. “We’ve played this scene twenty times. We just hoped to have a little more warning, that’s all.”
Mandy could barely comprehend her cousin’s words. She couldn’t move or speak. Her eyes were glazing over. The “posse,” as she had laughingly nicknamed them, looked even more dreadful than she’d imagined.
“Mandy, please. Just keep calm,” Julia said, as if Mandy were going to a ball instead of embarking on a thousandmile journey across the toughest country on the continent.
“Everything’s going to be fine. You go put on your ‘Julia’ clothes, just in case. I’ll keep an eye on the men.” They’d altered several of Julia’s dresses—a rose batiste, a soft pink muslin, a riding habit—by shortening them a few inches and taking in the waists until the dresses fit perfectly. Mandy hadn’t worn such pretty clothes in years.
“It probably isn’t even the right men,” Julia was saying, but she didn’t sound convinced. “I’ll hide in your father’s room just to be on the safe side. If it is them, you’ll have to start acting now. You get them away from here. I’ll leave a note for Mrs. Evans saying you had to leave urgently to visit your sick Aunt Adelaide over at Fort Casper, just as we planned. I’ll be sure to tell them an aide from the fort came to take you back. Mrs. Evans is expecting me to leave, so there’s no problem there. When I’m finished, I’ll go to Jason. We can leave as soon as it’s dark.”
Mandy just stared out the window, unable to accept any of this as real. It had all seemed like a game up until now. Learning to flirt, learning to swoon. Julia even gave Mandy lessons on how to cry on cue, although she wasn’t able to master the art. Julia’s slim hands on Mandy’s shoulders spun her around.
“Please, Mandy,” Julia pleaded, “if you care about my happiness, you’ll do as we planned. You’ve got to keep those men away from Sacramento City as long as possible. Jason and I need time!”
Still Mandy stared blankly, trying to register her cousin’s words.
Julia closed her eyes. Her bottom lip trembled, and large tears rolled down her cheeks. It was a good act, and it always worked. But this time Mandy was sure the tears were real.
She shook her head as if to clear it, embraced her cousin quickly, determined not to let her down, and hurried to her narrow upright chest beside the window. She pulled out Julia’s rose batiste dress and tugged at the pins holding back her hair. She stepped into the low-cut dress, designed to display Julia’s ample bosom, as were all her dresses, and worked the buttons that closed up the front. Feeling warm air on parts of her skin rarely exposed caused Mandy’s cheeks to flame. God, how would she ever be able to carry off such a deception?
She straightened the bodice of the dress and powdered her nose. Julia grabbed a brush and fluffed Mandy’s hair, now cut shorter to curl just above her waist. Several wispy tendrils curled near her ears.
Mandy checked the mirror, adding a little rouge to highlight her cheekbones and a bit of color to her lips. The thick swatch of hair she had worn across her face was brushed back, exposing more of her creamy complexion. Gold flecks, much like her cousin’s, glittered in her green eyes.
With her chestnut hair brushed out and curling loosely, her décolletage showing for the first time, and the tightwaisted dress enhancing the figure she usually took such care to hide, she looked beautiful. Though she’d always known she was attractive beneath her plain facade, it felt wonderful now to look like a woman—a beautiful woman, just like her cousin. If it weren’t for the circumstances, Mandy would have been thrilled.
They finished in minutes. Mandy summoned her courage. She knew she looked like Julia, but she certainly didn’t feel like her. Her whole body felt numb, and there was a distinct buzzing in her ears.
The men were dismounting in front of the house.
“You know, Mandy,” Julia whispered as she headed toward the bedroom door, “going to California might turn out to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Mandy sighed. “Maybe—if your father doesn’t kill me when I get there.”
Julia laughed. “I wish I could be there to see his face.”
Mandy grimaced at the thought and a sinking feeling gnawed at the pit of her stomach. God, she must be out of her mind!
Three loud raps on the door put the plan into motion. It was now or never. Mandy checked to be sure her father’s bedroom door was tightly closed, Julia well hidden within, as the pounding became more insistent. She squared her shoulders, tossed back her hair, and marched resolutely to the front door. She opened the door only slightly.
“Miss Julia Ashton?” A tall, dark-haired man peered at her through the narrow crack. The man was dressed in a well-tailored black suit so covered with dust it appeared almost gray. From his unkempt hair and unshaven appearance, it was obvious he’d ridden long and hard.
Giving him a look of disdain, as she was certain Julia would have, she stared haughtily back at the man. “What do you want?”
He seemed aware of her regard and began almost apologetically, “I’m sorry my friend and I did not have time to dress properly for the occasion, Miss Ashton. My name is James Long, and this is Travis Langley. We’ve been sent by your father to bring you home.”
Travis Langley! The name sent chills down her spine. She could barely make out a second shape behind the door, but she remembered the big man well. Now their plan was doomed to fail before it ever got off the ground. She stood in the doorway trying to decide what to do. More than two years. Would he remember her? Would he recognize her? She hardly recognized herself.
“Noooo!” she cried, slamming the door in their faces and throwing the bolt. She could hear their voices through the planking.
“Damn! We should have known better,” said Long.
“Now we’ll have to break in,” grumbled Langley.
Mandy dashed for the window, lifted the sash, climbed over the sill, and slid to the ground, running out through her tiny garden and off toward the stables. She knew they would catch up with her, but she needed to give Julia time to get to Jason. Her heart beat wildly. She couldn’t believe she was actually doing this. And now she had Travis Langley to contend with. Of all the bad luck! How could fate have sent someone she’d met before?
Hawk wedged a steel-hard shoulder against the pine boards of the door. The wooden latch snapped easily, propelling him into the room. James followed close behind. Chintz curtains billowed through an open window, making it clear the lady had escaped
“You follow her. I’ll circle around and cut her off,” Hawk directed. James nodded and ran for the window as Hawk made his way back out the front door. It would be easy for him to overtake her small stride. Hawk’s temper flared as he pictured the disheveled young woman with the ample bosom, chestnut hair, and wide green eyes he’d glimpsed through the crack in the door. She was definitely not the child-woman he’d expected. Her breathtaking appearance had caught them both off guard. He wouldn’t let it happen again.
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