Mathilda Hardwicke, a rebellious artist rejected by her family and New York society, heads west to Gold Rush California as a mail-order bride. But when fate leaves her alone at the altar, she’s drawn to Sakote–a fierce Konkow warrior whose tribe is threatened by the encroaching white men–in whose arms she discovers a savage new Paradise and a forbidden love more precious than gold.
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Sakote had to return to the waterfall. As much as he wanted to put the white woman out of his thoughts, along with the place where she’d stolen his senses, he had to go back. The hunting pouch was a gift from his father, and the tools in it—the snares, the knives, the mountain hemp line—would take days to replace.
So with a pouch of dried deer meat and a promise to his mother that he’d bring back woodpecker feathers for her husband’s wahiete—his crown, Sakote set off for the waterfall.
The pouch was where he’d left it, beside the great boulder. But still his eyes searched the wet banks of the pool, looking for some sign of the woman who’d come here. There was nothing. She’d left behind no scrap of cloth, no scent, not even a footprint.
But that didn’t mean her spirit was gone. She lived here still, in the rush of water over the stones, so like her laughter, in the green depth of the pool, like her eyes, and in the heat of the sun upon his shoulder, reminding him of the warmth of her arms around him.
“Damn!” There were no words of anger in Sakote’s language, so he borrowed the curse from the white man.
It didn’t matter what the elders said, what the dream tried to tell him. He must follow the old ways, the ways of the Konkow, or they would be lost. The white woman showed him another path, a dangerous path, a path he must not take.
The sun continued to blaze upon his back, and he knew a quick swim in the pond would cool his blood and his anger. He took off his moccasins, freed his hair, and loosened the thong around his breechcloth, letting it fall to the ground. Climbing to the crest of the boulder, he took a full breath and dove into the shimmering midst of the pool.
The bracing water sizzled over his skin as he plunged deep through the waves. The cool current swept past his body, swirling his hair like the long underwater moss, washing away his thoughts.
He broke the surface and shook his hair back, then swam for the waterfall. It pounded the black rock like the kilemi, the great sycamore log drum the Konkow danced to, and made a mist that hid the small cave behind the fall. He climbed out onto the slippery ledge and stood up, easing forward into the path of the fall to let it pummel him with punishing force, driving white spears into his bent back and shoulders. But it also awakened his body and challenged him. He slowly raised his head, braced his feet, reached toward the sky with outstretched arms, and withstood the heavy fall of water with a triumphant smile.
Unfortunately, the loud thunder of the fall prevented him from hearing that he was no longer alone at the pool.
Mattie’s jaw dropped. Her breath caught.
She’d memorized the way to the waterfall, and after sketching miners all morning, decided to make a few drawings of the pool. If she’d hoped that the Indian might return there, she knew it was a foolish hope. The fact that he had indeed come back, and in such bold display, couldn’t have amazed her more.
What in God’s name was he doing? The Indian stood at the foot of the waterfall, as naked as the day he was born, letting the water beat him within an inch of his life and grinning all the while.
She thought to yell out to him, to reprimand him for such indecent behavior, such outrageous liberties, such flagrant…but then the artist came out in her. She realized that what she beheld was beautiful, that he was beautiful. It was as if she witnessed the birth of a god.
Stealthily, she perched on a rock wedged between two trees, hoping the lush foliage and her drab plaid dress helped to conceal her. She found an empty page and set to work sketching.
He couldn’t remain there long, she knew, or else he’d be pounded into the rock. She had to work quickly, penci ling in the bare bones and trusting the rest to memory.
Sure enough, just as she finished the roughest of renderings, he brought his arms down through the fall like great white wings and dove into the middle of the pool.
His naked body slicing through the water sent a rush of delicious fire through her. Her pencil hovered over the page. It was wrong, what she did, making pictures of him in his altogether without his knowledge. And yet, she thought, patting a cheek grown hot with impropriety, it felt so right.
He bobbed up and flung his hair back, spraying droplets of water across the rippling surface.
Mattie pressed her pencil against her lower lip.
He swam forward, sluicing through the water as smoothly as a trout. Then he wheeled over onto his back and floated on the surface, boldly facing the midday sun like some pagan sacrifice.
Mattie’s teeth sank into the pencil.
She could see everything—the naked sprawl of his limbs, the corona of his long ebony hair, the dark patch at the juncture of his thighs, and its manly treasure, set like a jewel on black velvet.
He was Adam. Or Adonis. He was Icarus fallen from the sky. Hera cast into the sea. As innocent as an angel. As darkly beautiful as Lucifer.
Mattie blushed to the tips of her toes. She most definitely should not be witness to this…this…she had no word for his wanton display, but she was sure it was completely indecent. Still she couldn’t tear her eyes away. He was utterly, irrefutably perfect. And looking at him left her faint with a mixture of emotions as dizzying as whiskey and as unstable as gunpowder.
With trembling fingers, Mattie slid the pencil from between her lips, flipped to a new page, and began to draw. Despite her rattled nerves, her hand seemed steady, for she captured every nuance of shade, every subtle contour, each flash of translucence, as if the water lived and moved upon the paper. And the man… He was so true to life that she half expected the figure to lazily pitch over and swim off the page.
A fern tickled her nose, and she brushed it back, then leaned forward to put the finishing touches on the portrait—a few more branches dabbling in the waves, a leaf floating by his head. She decided on the title, scribbling it at the bottom beside her signature.
Just in time. The Indian knifed under, a flash of strong tan buttocks and long legs, disappearing beneath the surface and into the green depths.
Sakote saw the movement of branches from the corner of his eye, but gave no indication. If it was a deer, he didn’t want to frighten it from its drinking place. If it was a bear, his splashing would scare it soon enough. If it was a white man, he would have to be clever. He floated a moment more, letting the waves carry him gently toward the deepest part of the pool, watching for sudden movements through the dark lashes of his eyes. Then he gulped in a great breath and dove to the bottom, where the water was cold and shadowy.
He came up silently, on the concealed side of the big granite boulder, and eased his way out of the water and around the rock until he could see what hid in the brush.
She wore another ugly brown dress with lines of other colors running through it like mistakes, and her hair was captured into a tight knot at the back of her head. She bit at her lower lip and leaned out dangerously far between two dogwood saplings, shielding her eyes with one hand, searching the pool.
Sakote didn’t know what he felt. Joy. Or anger. Relief. Dread. Or desire.
She leaned forward even further, worry wrinkling her brow, and Sakote bit back a shout of warning as the saplings bent almost to the breaking point.
“Oh, no,” she murmured.
The words were only a breath of a whisper on the breeze, but they carried to his ears like sad music. Mattie edged between the two trees and took three slippery steps down the slope. Meanwhile, Sakote used the mask of noise to move in the opposite direction, up the rise. While she scanned the water, he crept behind her, stopping when he found the sketchbook on the ground, frowning when he saw the figure floating on the page.
Now he knew what he felt. Fury. He glanced down at his naked body, at his man’s pride, shrunken with cold to the size of an acorn, then at its perfect duplicate drawn on the paper. And he felt as if he would explode with rage.
He must have made a sound, some strangled snarl of anger, for Mattie turned. And screamed.