Authors: Lynna Banning
He laid his hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently. “But be sure and take it out when I get home for supper tonight. I've got something on my mind.”
he competition continued until there were only two contestants left, Hawk and Jericho Silver, and the target was moved back another fifty yards. Hawk and Jericho each fired two rounds, and it seemed to her just one hole showed on the queen of hearts. “Whooee,” Eli crowed. “That's mighty fine shootin', a rifle at one hundred yards.”
Then they moved the target back another fifty yards, and each competitor shot only once; the first one who missed was judged the loser. Caroline could scarcely bear to watch.
Hawk lost. Jericho clapped him on the back and offered to buy him a beer, but Hawk shook his head, then looked for Caroline.
At supper that night Caroline couldn't sit still.
was it Hawk had on his mind? She fidgeted, knocked her knife onto the kitchen floor not once but twice and finally laced her fingers together in her lap to stop their fluttering.
Hawk didn't appear until halfway through the baked beans and corn bread, and then it got worse. When he strode in, his hair still wet from washing up at the pump out back, Caroline reached for a glass of water and knocked it over.
Fernanda sent her a questioning look. “
, you have an itch?” The Mexican woman's sly smile indicated she knew all about the nerves dancing up and down Caroline's spine.
“How come you didn't win today, Uncle Hawk?” Billy piped.
“Can't win all the time, Billy. You know that.”
can,” the boy insisted.
“Guess I was distracted.” Hawk reached for the platter of corn bread and Billy shoved the butter dish across the table toward him.
“What distracted you, Uncle Hawk?”
“Billy,” Ilsa admonished. “Let your uncle eat his supper.”
Eli's blue eyes twinkled. “Mighta been the crowd, huh, Hawk?”
“Eli,” Ilsa said in the same tone she used to caution her son. “Enough.”
Across the table, Fernanda and Ilsa exchanged glances, and all at once Caroline wanted to scream.
What was going on that she didn't know about?
She bolted for the kitchen, sank her plate and fork into the bucket of dishwater heating on the stove and fled to the backyard. The washing she had hung on the clothesline earlier that afternoon was now dry and flapping in the breeze.
Caroline grabbed the wicker laundry basket and began unpinning the garments and folding them up. She hadn't reached the second row of sheets before the screen door banged open and someone lifted the clothespin bag out of her hand.
“Bedclothes, huh?” He unpinned a pillowcase and dropped it into the basket.
“You should fold it up,” she said. “Ilsa says it smooths out the wrinkles and saves ironing.”
He unpinned another sheet. “I don't mind wrinkles.”
“Well, you should. You'll sleep better on smoothâ”
“Nothing's gonna help me sleep,” he said mildly. “These yours?” He flicked his forefinger against the remaining sheet and a matching embroidered pillowcase as he unpinned them.
“Okay, let's fold this one up.” He shook out the square of muslin and offered her two corners, then moved toward her and mated his corners to hers.
The intent look in his eyes made her belly flip-flop. “I can manage from here on.”
He paid no attention, just smoothed the crease in the once-folded sheet and again offered her the corners. This time when they brought them together he captured both her hands.
“I need to talk to you.”
“I need to fold up the laundry.”
He barked a laugh. “Don't want to talk, huh?”
“It isn't that so much as...well, yes, it is that. I am just beginning to feel safe here at your sister's, and now I have a feeling you're going to spoil it.”
She bent to retrieve the wadded-up sheet he'd tossed into the basket, but he jerked it out of her hand. “Dammit, why don't you listen first and then decide?”
She snatched the sheet back. “Because I don't want things to change. I'm just now starting to sleep at night without dreaming, andâ”
“Caroline, you've got your head in the sand. If you think this problem is gonna go away, you'd better take another look at how close you came to not getting to Smoke River in one piece.”
She was silent for so long Hawk wondered if she'd heard him.
Of course she heard you, you idiot. You're yelling at her!
She stuffed the crumpled sheet back into the basket and spun away toward the back porch. But she didn't stomp through the screen door. Instead, she settled on the wooden porch step and wrapped her skirt around her legs. It was the same yellow skirt Ilsa had loaned her three days ago; a splotch of applesauce had dried near the hem.
“Sooner or later you're gonna have to wash that skirt,” he remarked.
“I can't. I have only jeans and one shirt to wear. I must visit the dressmaker.”
He laughed softly, then settled on the step below her. “What about your underclothes?”
“What about them?” she snapped. Her cheeks got real pink. Damn pretty color.
“Whether you're wearing any.”
“Of course I am! Ladies should always wear undergarments.”
“Not always,” he said quietly.
Caroline had had enough of conversations that made her skin go hot and her stomach fill with grasshoppers. She tried to stand up, but he caught her hand and yanked her down.
“I want you to listen to me.” His voice had turned so hard it sent a shiver up the back of her neck. Hawk Rivera must be formidable as a lawman. Few would withstand an order given in that tone.
“All right, I am listening.”
He picked up her hand, the same one he'd pulled her down with. “Did I hurt you?”
“It doesn't matter.”
“Hell if it doesn't. I've never abused a prisoner in my care yet.”
I am most certainly not your prisoner!”
“Damn right,” he replied. “But you're under my protection. It's the same thing.”
“Is this what you wanted to talk about?” She made her voice as severe as she could manage, but the truth was that a conversation conducted while folding up laundry was so ludicrous it almost made her laugh. Mama would have found it hilarious. That is, if it were not so serious. Hawk was right. The situation as it was could not continue.
She noticed he was staring off toward the golden hills in the distance.
“Okay,” he began. “Here's how I see it. You're hell-bent on traveling around making speeches. You ever think about stopping?”
“You mean give up working to get the vote for women? No, I could not give it up, Hawk. It is important.”
“It would get you out of the line of fire.”
“But this is my life's work! I can't just walk away because the path is rough.”
“I was afraid you'd say that. Your path is more than ârough,' Caroline. Your path is suicidal.”
“But it will not be when you catch that man whoâ”
“What if I can't?” He scuffed his boot heel back and forth across the wooden step. “After the competition today I talked to the marshal, Matt Johnson. He made me see things a lot clearer. I've got five men guarding you, including me. That works only if you're here in Smoke River, but I don't think you want that, do you?”
“What about your stakeout plan? The one you talked about back in Boise?”
“It's too dangerous. Matt saw that right off.”
“Could we try your plan anyway? I cannot live my life like this, compromising what I have set out to do and looking over my shoulder every time I make a speech.”
Again he picked up her hand. “To be honest, Caroline, I'm afraid to try my plan. Any plan.”
She stared at him. “Hawk, I would judge you as a man who fears very little.”
“Maybe. But I'm sure as hell afraid of this. I'm afraid to put you at risk.”
“Then it seems we are at an impasse.”
Hawk groaned, then brought her hand to his lips. “Risk I can live with. Danger I can live with. But an impasse? Not hardly.”
He twisted to wrap his fingers about the back of her neck and drew her face down to his. “Don't scream. I'm going to kiss you.”
He levered his body up beside her and reached sideways to take her face between his two hands.
“Wait,” she breathed.
He captured her words under his mouth, moved slowly, carefully over her lips until he felt her tremble and he broke away to gulp air. “Hell, Caroline.”
“What is it?”
He blew out a heavy breath. “Just hell.” He kissed her again, hoping to God she wasn't frightened, that she was liking it. Him. Her mouth was like hot silk, and he drank deep while his heart turned a slow cartwheel and floated up into his throat.
God help him
He lifted his head and looked into her eyes, now deep blue and shiny. Caroline brought her hand up to touch her trembling lips, then noticed that her fingers were trembling as well and buried them in the folds of her skirt.
“Iâ” she began again, working to keep her voice steady. “I would like...”
Hawk held his breath.
“IâI would like to visit the dressmaker tomorrow afternoon. Would you go with me?”
“What? That's all you can say?” Incredulous, he stared at her. “I kiss you until I'm burning up inside and all you want to talk about is the dressmaker?”
“Well, will you?” He thought he saw a fleeting smile cross her lips, but maybe it was just his imagination. Maybe everything was his imagination, her lips accepting his kiss, her fluttery breathing, the glow in her eyes.
“Hell, no, I won't.”
Her eyes went wide. “Why not?”
“I don't think I can stand watching you get fitted for a dress or a skirt or whatever it is you need.”
She laughed. “But Hawk. I'll just be getting measured. I won't be taking off myâ”
He jolted to his feet, yanked all the rest of the washing off the clothesline and used the wicker basket to hide his body's unmistakable evidence of how damn much he wanted her.
he dressmaker, Verena Forester, was in her midforties, Caroline judged, with gray-streaked blonde hair and a sour expression. The woman was looking at her as if she had strawberries growing out of her ears.
“What kinda skirt, may I ask?”
“Something plain. A simple bombazine in a dark color, perhaps.”
“Four gore or six?”
Caroline had to smile at the mystified expression on Hawk's face. He stopped pacing back and forth in front of the display window and planted himself at her side. “Gore?” he whispered.
“Gores refer to the fullness,” she murmured.
“Make it with pockets,” he ordered the dressmaker.
Verena blinked. “What on earth? Sheriff Rivera, do you always stick your nose into your...” she eyed Caroline, clearly suspicious of her supposed relationship to Hawk “...your
It was clear the dressmaker knew Caroline was not really his niece. “Yep,” came Hawk's instant reply. “Carrie's got no sense of propriety, never has had. I'm here to keep her looking decent.”
Verena's lorgnette fell to her almost-flat bosom and Caroline gasped. “Hush up!” she hissed.
“I won't have any bombazine until fall,” Verena said smoothly. “But I do have a nice dark green poplin. Or perhaps royal blue?”
Undaunted, Hawk pressed on. “Pockets, like I said. Big ones.”
“Just what,” Verena said icily, “do you intend to put in them, miss?”
“Pie tin,” Hawk interjected. “Make them big enough to hold a pie tin. Andâ” he drew Caroline over to a display of bright colored prints “ânot dark green. Make it inâ” he ran his forefinger over the cloth “âthis one.”
He pointed to a gaily flowered red-and-yellow calico, a color so bright Caroline would never consider wearing it.
Verena nodded her approval and lifted the bolt onto the counter. “For the dance on Saturday night, is that right?”
“What dance?” Caroline ventured.
“Why, the Jensen's barn dance,” the dressmaker explained. “They hold one every summer.”
Caroline noted the wistful look in the dressmaker's hazel eyes. She also noted that her cheeks turned rosy whenever Hawk looked at her. Heavens! Were half the females in Smoke River hankering after the sheriff?
“And make up another skirt in the dark blue, would you?” Caroline asked. “Also with pockets. Large ones.”
The dressmaker smiled. “Need any petticoats? Or shirtwaists?”
“Oh, no. I don't, thank you.”
“Yes.” Hawk contradicted. “And add some lace here and there. Ilsa's clothes never have any lace.”
Caroline gaped at him. “Ilsa probably cannot afford lace,” she murmured. “And I don't want to dress like a peacock while under her roof.”
Verena fingered another bolt of fabric. “How about this forest green muslin, made with flounces?” She whipped out a tape measure and measured Caroline's waist while Hawk watched avidly. She fervently wished he would spy some miscreant outside the window and leave her in peace. But she pivoted and lifted her arms on Verena's command while the sheriff's eyes darkened into emerald pools and his mouth pressed into a line.
Abruptly he stepped between the dressmaker and herself and drew her off behind a display of hats. “What about undergarments?” he intoned.
She gave a little squeak and Hawk grinned. “How dare you presumeâ” she whispered.
“Come off it, Caroline. Ilsa's two sizes bigger than you around the waist. Her bloomers are probably falling off your hips right this minute.”
Hawk knew he shouldn't have said that, but it was worth it to watch Caroline's eyes grow larger and more purple-blue and her mouth drop open into a little pink O. Before she could explode, he walked her back to the counter and plunked down two bills.
“My, uh, niece and I don't see eye to eye on a lot of things,” he said blandly. “So throw in a couple of petticoats and...whatever understuff she needs.”
Verena was all smiles. “Your
, Sheriff Rivera, is a very fortunate young lady.”
Caroline shot him a look that could curl tree bark and marched out the door. Hawk peeled off another bill and tossed it on the counter. Verena looked from the money to Hawk and back to the money.
“By Saturday morning,” he supplied. “Dance is Saturday night.” He caught up to Caroline before she reached the bakery next door.
“You are a very generous âuncle,' Hawk. But really, Iâ”
“You don't like being taken care of, do you?”
“I don't like being bossed around.”
“Better get used to it. Remember,
Caroline, for all intents and purposes, you are my prisoner.”
* * *
Caroline had never been to a country barn dance before. It was as unlike the Sunday afternoons at Miss Handley's Dancing Academy as Shasta daisies were from cheese. The music was deafening. Two guitars, a banjo, a skittery-sounding violin, and the oddest-looking bass fiddle she'd ever seen, part washtub and part broom handle. The stomping of cowboy boots on the plank floor raised enough dust to make old ladies along the sidelines sneeze into their lace-trimmed handkerchiefs.
Hawk leaned in close. “Nothing like Boston, huh?”
She shook her head. “It is most definitely not like Boston.” She felt awkward and as out of place as a petunia in a cabbage patch. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. Her new flowered calico skirt was sinfully swirly, the most brightly colored garment she had ever owned. But she didn't want to stand out. She wanted to hide in the shadows. She almost wished for her familiar too-big boots instead of the proper black leather lace-ups she'd purchased at the mercantile.
“What's wrong?” Hawk whispered. “You look white as skimmed milk.”
“I feel conspicuous.”
He chuckled. “You are conspicuous. You're the prettiest woman here.” His gesture took in the spacious wood barn and the crowd of people milling about.
Dumbstruck, Caroline stared up at him.
“It's true,” he said. “I'm afraid to dance with you because sure as chickens lay eggs, the minute I take you out on the floor some local cowboy's gonna cut in.”
She caught her breath. “Oh. Don't let them, Hawk. Please.”
“You think I'm crazy? I wouldn't let another man get within fifteen feet of you. So, you'd better dance with me, Caroline. I figure it's the only way I'm going to get my arms around you for more than ten seconds.”
He grabbed her hand and pulled her onto the floor, and the next thing she knew he was holding her close and moving to the thumping of the bass fiddle. Her heart began to hammer.
“Sorry if my holster is bumping against you,” he said after a moment. “These days I wear it everywhere.”
“I cannot feel it.”
“Well, then, guess I'd better hold you a little closer,” he said with a laugh. “You carrying your pistol?”
He tightened his arm across her back. “You sure? I can't feel it.”
That made her laugh, half in outrage and half in amusement. Good heavens, underneath this tough, unflappable lawman exterior, Hawk Rivera was just a man like any other.
No, not like any other. Her breath stopped. Hawk was different, so different she had let him kiss her, not once but twice, and now she was letting him hold her close in his arms, feeling his breath stir her hair.
Expertly he fended off the men who wanted to cut in, keeping her back to them and swinging her away just as male after male sidled forward, arm raised to tap Hawk on the shoulder.
A glow of warmth spread through her chest. Hawk was protecting her from all of them.
She began to relax her stiff spine. He must have felt it because he pulled her even closer, so close that her nose brushed his muslin-clad shoulder. He smelled of wood smoke and something spicy and male that made her stomach feel funny.
She wasn't used to being held like this, face-to-face. It made her jittery. Apprehensive. It reminded her of...
She willed her mind to move elsewhere, to the chatter of people around them, the violin music that grew wilder and more uninhibited than any violin sounds she'd ever heard. She studied the children on the sidelines, and the women, some young and smooth-skinned, rocking babes against their breasts, and some older with graying hair pulled into buns and steel-rimmed spectacles, fanning themselves with folded paper fans.
Hawk stopped angling her away from the hopeful men at the edge of the dance floor, and she prayed they had all given up.
He had also stopped talking. Instead he just held her and let his body do the talking. His hand at her back was warm and insistent, pulling her into his chest until her breasts touched his shirt and the nipples tingled.
She realized she had never danced with a grown man before. The gangly boys at the dancing academy had never held her like this; they scarcely knew how to move their huge, clumsy feet. But she liked dancing with Hawk, and that surprised her. She liked hearing his breath pull in and out and grow ragged when she looked up at him, liked feeling his heart thump under his blue shirt.
After an hour they stopped at the refreshment table, cobbled together out of two sawhorses and three two-by-twelve boards. Hawk ordered lemonade for her and beer for himself, and in his typical fashion he ignored making introductions. Maybe he didn't want her name too well-known around town. Or maybe Ilsa was right; Hawk had very rough manners.
She found she didn't care. Maddie Silver smiled at her from across the room, as did Jeanne Halliday, the mother of little Manette, the girl Billy insisted he was
sweet on. Eli was busy partnering Ilsa and then young Noralee Ness and then a beaming Fernanda, who danced with real verve.
It was unexpectedly pleasant being here, she decided, sipping her lemonade. But she knew it would all change when she spoke her piece to the townspeople and Hawk got ready to spring his trap. He'd told her he knew deep down it was the only way to catch her assailant.
Then people would begin to take sides and arguments would start, questions would erupt from hostile listeners. And all those men who now wanted to cut in on Hawk on the dance floor would yell insults at her and harangue against their wives or girlfriends for even listening to her.
But she had to do it. Someone, a lot of someones, must carry the message to everyone who lived in this great and good country so that they could all be truly free and equal. But the next time she gave a speech she would, as Hawk warned, be once again in the line of fire.
She downed two more cups of lemonade and tried to calm her nerves. Eventually Hawk guided her over to Marshal Johnson and his very pregnant wife, Ellie, and went in search of Jericho Silver. The instant he disappeared, Caroline noted that the marshal stepped away from his wife and stood apart, scanning the throng of dancers and onlookers, his hand resting casually on his holstered revolver.
Maddie Silver smiled and patted the bench beside her.
“Someone is always watching over you, Caroline. You need not worry when you dance with Hawk.”
“Oh! I must confess I wasn't even thinking of that. I was thinking of Hawk. How shortsighted of me!”
Maddie gave an unladylike hoot of laughter. “And you imagine when Hawk is out there on the floor with his arms around you, he is thinking about anything as unromantic as guarding you?” She sighed in mock distress, then leaned closer.
“Hawk is thinking only about dancing with you, Caroline. I have never seen our sheriff so, um, shall I say inattentive to his duties.”
Hawk strode across the room to claim Caroline again, a frown creasing his forehead and his dark eyebrows lowered.
In an instant Jericho was beside him. “Trouble?”
“Hell, yes, you smart-ass sharpshooter,” he muttered under his breath. “Woman trouble.”
Jericho glanced sideways at his wife, then slapped a friendly hand on Hawk's shoulder. “Hell's half acre, Hawk, I never thought I'd see you flinch that way. You know, my friend, that woman trouble is the worst kind of trouble a man can have.”