“In the meantime, you could aim and miss.”
“I’ll have you know I’ve never aimed and missed—” She caught herself, her eyes flickering over his bandaged shoulder. “I mean, when it would have mattered.”
To aim and miss... Memory, dark and dusty, whispered through his mind and was gone. “You don’t want to aim and miss when it matters, ma’am,” he said softly.
“Perhaps. But in the meantime, I’ve Avram.”
He couldn’t squelch a snort before he popped three berries into his mouth. He half slouched against the bowed excuse for a barn wall, chewed innocently enough, and gave her his best vague look when she planted her hands on her hips and advanced toward him.
She stood there, bathed in lamplight and dancing shadows, entirely unaware of herself as a woman and looking far too young and ripe for a man such as he, a man used to taking what he wanted from a woman. Particularly when he’d been so long without one. There, the chin jutted and the nose poked skyward, her lips compressing as though she sought just the perfect combination of words to skewer him with. He could almost hear the toe of her shoe tapping on the floor, could feel her righteous indignation in the heat of her.
“Whatever are you snickering about, Mr. Stark? If you intend to make humor at my fiancé’s expense—”
“I’ve never snickered in my life, ma’am.”
“Oh, but you’ve snickered, all right.” She waved a hand over him, directly at his bare chest. “A man who can calmly eat a meal without his shirt in front of a woman is capable of snickering. I wouldn’t doubt that you can spit, as well.”
“A nasty habit. I avoid it if I can.”
“And ill-mannered sorts are notoriously short on book learning—”
“I read Keats and Byron every night before retiring.”
“Why, you probably haven’t bathed in over a month—”
“I make it a daily habit. Bathed just this morning, ma’am. The stream was cold and deep. Perfect for bathing...” He flashed a rare smile, one that seemed to crack his skin. “Naked, of course.”
This stopped her cold, as he’d known it would. All her puffed-up defending of her beloved Avram fled, swallowed in one noisy gulp. She flushed scarlet. She stared at his bare chest, and lower, at his stomach. The blush reached clear to her hairline. He could almost read her innocent mind, the images taking full, real shape...a man, bathing naked in a cold stream.
It was hard to imagine that this woman had ever known intimacy with a man.
For whatever unfathomable reason, he was suddenly overcome with the need to apologize to her for stoking all those defenses, no matter how deserving Halsey might be, no matter how eagerly she had leapt to his defense.
Rance stood, and she took three steps back, one slender arm outstretched, as though to keep him at a proper distance.
“In the future,” she said, “I would appreciate you wearing your clothes, sir, particularly your
in my presence.” She looked as though she itched to grow another seven inches taller as she lifted her gaze finally to his. “And that of my boy.”
Odd, that. Protecting her son from the sight of a man. He wondered if she’d done the same with her own husband.
He indicated the blood-soaked cloth lying on a nearby pile of hay. “My shirt, ma’am, has a bloody hole in it.”
She pursed her lips, then snatched his shirt up and stalked from the barn. Silhouetted against a sky ablaze with twilight fire, her shoulders squared, and all those blond curls bounced with each step she took. His gaze immediately narrowed upon the outline of her hips, slim, swaying and womanly. Instinct, that was it. Simply male instinct and habit—both a man like him could tame and manage, both he would feel with
woman, dammit. See, he could take his eyes off her. Easy enough.
He slouched against the barn wall, feeling weariness like lead weights in his limbs. His lids drooped, and twilight faded with the blossoming sounds of night above the lonely, slowing creak of the windmill. Yet, try as he might, he could not banish that image of Jessica Wynne from his mind, and then darkness encroached, and the creaking of the windmill grew louder, rousing age-old memories.
Mists parted on a lifetime ago.... The sleeping town of Lawrence, Kansas, all quiet save for the comforting squeak of a windmill outside his open bedroom window and then the gunshots, ripping through the predawn peace...the horrified shouts, cries for help, more gunfire, carnage, and his parents crumpling lifeless beside him as he struggled to take aim, to get off one good shot before the outlaw gang disappeared into the darkness.
Something touched him. He roared awake, the demon stirring to life within him for the first time in years. A shadow loomed close, yet he didn’t strike out. No, he would grapple with his ghosts, dammit. He lunged upward in the darkness, his fingers meeting flesh, yet he gripped those delicate limbs and with one flex of his arms lifted this insignificant weight entirely against him, flush from chest to hips.
The fog cleared. That warm, lemony woman-scent spilled over him. No ghost. He stared into Jessica Wynne’s wide blue eyes.
he heat of him penetrated muslin, cotton and bone, leaping into her blood like the first roar of a flame. He was all male, potent, savage, and as raw and untamed as an untouched wilderness, his eyes full of frenzied, mysterious fire. A man so different from the few she’d known. It struck her that she felt no fear, even when his fingers squeezed into her upper arms. Something told her she should be afraid. Yet she felt nothing but this slow, deep burning.
Their breaths came matched, hers shallow, his tortured, a palpable stirring of the sliver of hot night air that dared to pass between them. His scent filled her lungs. Her belly curved into his. Her breasts pushed into his chest, the peaks swelling against fevered bands of muscle—
Too late she realized she’d shoved a fist into his wounded shoulder. Breath hissed from between his teeth, and he released her to sag once again against the barn wall.
“Good heavens, I’m sorry!” she blurted.
Dim lantern light threw his face into deep shadow, yet she recognized the subtle tightening of the lines around his mouth, the downward tilt of his brows over his nose. He shoved a big hand through that unruly mane of blue-black, smoothing the perspiration that dotted his forehead and bathed his torso from neck to waist in a filmy sheen. For one long, unconscionable moment, she allowed her eyes to drift over the breadth of that furred chest and along the ridges of his belly.
She watched his fingers threading through his hair, as if he were massaging some deep ache there. Perhaps it was some trick of the flickering lamplight, but she thought she could detect the faintest trembling in those fingers.
Instinctively, as would any mother, she reached a palm toward his forehead. His eyes angled abruptly at her. Her hand dropped to twist into her skirt.
“You could be feverish, Mr. Stark.”
His lip barely curled with his words. “More than likely it was all that damned hot soup.”
She sucked in a breath of indignation. What was it about this man that stirred her so swiftly to anger, despite his wounded state, despite the fact that she needed him? Despite the fact that she wanted to like him. With pursed lips, she watched him shove himself from his hay bale and move past her, deeper into the shadows. He paused to stare into the night from the open barn door, presenting his back to her.
Jessica pondered that broad expanse, a back not at all unlike a bronzed sculpture she’d once seen at Ledbetter’s General Store, the same sculpture she had yearned to establish with pride upon her mantel...if Frank would ever have allowed such indulgences, of course. Sadie McGlue, upon mere sight of the thing, had all but proclaimed it priceless treasure straight from Boston and had snatched it up. Yet Jessica still remembered the feel of that cool sculpted bronze beneath her fingertips. Stark’s back looked as if fires burned just beneath the skin’s surface.
Her itching fingers twisted more securely into her skirts.
No reply. She had the distinct feeling his mind was miles from here, where she’d found him, deep in some fevered, tortured pit of darkness. His silence, even the manner in which his hair hung in those riotous loose curls, seemed to mock her curiosity. But why the devil should she care if some memory or nightmare tormented him? He was probably most deserving of such torture, though a most disturbing one it must have been to rouse such raw and primitive emotion in him. She could still feel the solid, heated wall of him pushing against her, the unchecked tensile strength in his hands.
She ground her teeth and swung her gaze away from him, anywhere, and found herself wondering how the devil the man would sleep comfortably upon all this hay with only a thin bedroll.
“Don’t look at me, if you wish, though I would like to know what grievance you could possibly have with me. I simply came to check your bandage. And I brought you a sheet and a blanket, but I see you have—”
Her voice trapped in her throat when he suddenly turned about and moved slowly toward her. Perhaps it was then that Jessica experienced her first serious twinges of doubt about keeping this man anywhere near her farm. It was in the subtle swagger of his lean hips, the simple manner in which his faded denims hugged his thighs, the sinewed length of his muscled arms, and those hands. And the look in his eyes. A tiger’s golden eyes. An outlaw’s eyes, full of wicked, sinful promise.
He paused not a hand’s breadth from her, and Jessica battled an overwhelming desire to flee. Her breath had found her voice, somewhere...only she could find neither.
“Am I feverish?” His voice, smooth and rich and so very mellow, hinted that perhaps he did indeed read Keats and Byron before retiring each night. No outlaw could ever have been blessed with such a voice.
Jessica felt her mouth open and...nothing. His fingers encircled her wrist and drew her palm to his cheek. A day’s growth of beard, and heat burned into her palm, or perhaps it was simply that her hand had gone ice-cold. His covered hers, entrapping her fingers in gentle warmth, then retreated.
“I—” She licked parched lips and wished to God the man would stop looking at her so intensely. “I should really feel your forehead, if I am to properly...Mr....”
“Logan,” he replied softly. Again, gentle fingers found hers and moved her palm to his forehead. Crisply curling hair seemed to stroke her fingertips. He stared at her mouth. “Well?”
So very faintly that she might have missed it, the corner of his mouth lifted. Yes, this must amuse him greatly, a woman barely capable of simple breathing and speaking. And suddenly it was all too much, the sheer immensity of him, his scent, that voice, that look in his eyes...and the seductive shadows encircling them.
She snatched her hand away from his skin and found her fingers fidgeting at the buttons high at her throat. “Yes...I mean, no...you’re not feverish. Quite well, I’m sure, I—”
Before she could spin about and flee, yes, flee, while she still retained some thread of sense, he again trapped her hand.
“And my wound?” he said. “You did just punch me in the shoulder, remember?”
She swallowed and gave the bandaged shoulder a glance. “I’m sure it’s fine until morning.”
A dark brow lifted, a hint of devilish mockery there. “Are you quite sure? You wouldn’t want me expiring from infection some time during the night, would you?”
This gave her sufficient pause, and she sensed that he had known it would. Confounded arrogant man. As if he knew her so very well after one day. As if she were so very simple to know.
And yet...she had never been one to neglect anything, had forever endeavored to do the proper thing at the proper time, to whatever degree was required, and then some. A perfectionist, her father had proclaimed her with more than a hint of pride. Avram appreciated that quality in her as much as Frank had seemed needled by it...when he had taken the time to notice her, that is.
Indeed, why bother with anything if you weren’t going to do it right...whether it be tending a farm, raising a child, or healing a rifle wound you had inflicted through your own panic and bothersome lack of control?
She cocked her head with renewed self-assurance and sniffed, “If worrying about it shall keep you from rest, then indeed I shall tend to your wound now.”
“Ah, I need my rest.” He leaned slightly down and forward. She needed barely to reach out to touch him.
“Indeed you do.” Her voice had again taken on that uncharacteristic breathy quality, one common to women like Sadie McGlue and her society sisters, who cinched their corsets a few notches too tight on Sundays for church. They all seemed mere seconds from crumpling in colorful heaps of starched New England taffeta and satin ruffles...as though their lungs weren’t getting sufficient air. Those women had an overindulgence in pastry to blame. She...she hadn’t had pastry in years. And she hadn’t the money for a corset. So what the devil was her problem?
She forced her attention to peeling away the bandage, to the raw wound she probed beneath, away from the feel of his chin brushing against her hair, his warmth encircling her like invisible arms, his voice rumbling in his chest.
“Will I survive the night?” he asked. It was a simple question, yet emitted in that deep, soft baritone, as potently male as any Jessica could imagine. She could endure this torture no more.
She did a miserably inept job of securing the bandage in place again, her fingers fumbling like a five-year-old’s. She spun about and nearly tripped over her skirts in her haste to put a healthy distance between them.
She jerked her arm toward a nearby hay bale. “There—I—I’ve brought you sheets. Perhaps they will make it easier for you to achieve all that rest. You will need it for the walk to town early tomorrow for supplies and the like.” She barely glanced over her shoulder at him. “G-good night, Mr. Stark.”
“Logan” was the last she heard before she sought haven in the darkness.
* * *
Oh, but what the dawning of a new day could do for a girl, particularly one of Jessica’s nature. Indeed, accomplishment before sunrise could wipe away the last traces of pesky memories from last eve, could provide ample reassurance that she was in complete control of herself, her life, her response to Logan Stark. Little matter that she’d tossed fitfully upon her mattress for most of the night. And when sleep finally, mercifully, ensnared her, she’d dreamed only of those awful moments in the barn with Stark. A shirtless, sun-baked Stark.
A crisply made bed, a loaf of bread baking in the oven, coffee roasting, a fresh muslin gown and neatly combed hair—yes, this was all that was necessary to get her day off to a smooth and even start. None of that awful pell-mell from yesterday, as though the ground were in constant shift beneath her feet. The idea! That one man, after a single day, possessed the ability to render her an insomniac! Ridiculous. Preposterous. She was in
control of her life, her farm, her son, her emotions. A woman had to be, after all, if she was to succeed. And she
succeed with this farm, with her son, regardless of the difficulties. These she would overcome. After all, obstacles merely served to sift out the weak and the timid, of which she was decidedly neither.
It was with a certain deeply felt smugness, though she knew not why, that she peered from her brightly curtained kitchen window into the eerie gray of predawn. A curve softened her mouth. No sign of life from the barn. No doubt the beast still slumbered, accustomed, as she’d often heard those heathen types were, to wallowing about until midday. Well, she’d show him the stuff she was made of, and what she expected of him if he intended to retain his post under
She found herself again before her dressing table, smoothing the flyaway curls escaping her neat and tidy chignon, a coiffure she never managed to accomplish with any ease. Perhaps this was why she lingered here before the glass longer than usual. Yet she
journeying to town today, and this
require some care with her appearance. The proper hair, the best of her muslins, perhaps even her straw hat with the pressed pale blue ribbon.
Her fingers suddenly trembled upon the frayed lace at her collar. She pressed a hand to the twittering in her belly and grabbed the two-inch excess of fabric there at her waist. In the gray light of dawn reflecting off her looking glass, her cheekbones seemed to poke through her skin, and purple shadows dusted beneath her eyes. The ravages of time...and she not yet twenty-three. Was this what Stark saw when he looked at her?
She watched the color blossom through her cheekbones. Avram,
If a woman was so lax as to find herself preoccupied with thoughts of a man, that man should be her betrothed. Though, now that she gave it some thought, she’d never once felt the least bit conscious of her appearance with Avram, nor had she ever felt compelled to seek her looking glass for his benefit. Then she was indeed doing right by marrying him. She certainly couldn’t bear to be all fidgety for the remainder of her life. Yes, that was it. She’d been far too fussed up and fidgety to suit anyone.
Her own hollow eyes stared from her reflection. Where indeed had the sparkle of youth flown? What had responsibility and widowhood done to her?
She forced her gaze from the glass and found herself staring at the framed photograph of Frank. Then again, anger and bitterness of this magnitude certainly could not content itself with eating only at her insides. It had to leave its mark upon her face and body, ravaging her so that no man would find comfort in looking at her. Her husband’s dying gift to her, as if he hadn’t left her with enough burdens to bear. His perfidy had been the very least of it.
Her fingers coiled around the gilt frame, and she battled, as always, the urge to fling it across the room, to crush it beneath the sole of her shoe, to lay waste to him as he had done to her. But, no. Christian must forever remember his papa lovingly. He deserved that far more than she deserved some sort of violent recompense, one that was certain to leave her just as bitter, and her son nothing but confused.
Christian. Good heavens, consumed with her own thoughts, she’d allowed him to wallow away in his bed until past sunrise. Laziness could insinuate itself into a five-year-old in the span of one quiet morning.
She spun from the dressing table and headed directly for the narrow flight of stairs leading to her son’s bedroom. She found his bed empty, the pillow cool.
Feeling the first stirrings of annoyance, she marched down the stairs and through the kitchen, yanking open the back door with more fervor than she would have ever wished to display. She nearly tripped over the full pail sitting on the stoop.
She lifted it and scowled. She should be pleased. She should be delighted. She wasn’t. After all,
much milk from any cow, much less
miserable excuse for a bovine. The pail met solidly with the stoop once more, and then she was off, stomping toward the barn. Upon passing the paddock, she directed a scowl at Maggie, her dairy cow, chewing her cud with a certain mocking disdain.