“Traitor,” she grumbled. Blasted outlaw, and damned and blasted cow. Far too much cheek to display for an animal who seemed incapable of fathoming that she could, with very little effort, escape that crumbling excuse for a fence.
Jessica lengthened her stride. Arrogant man, thinking to disrupt
life, what little success she’d made of it, thinking to prove her inadequate of managing the place. The pins tumbled from her chignon, her hair spilled with its own version of mockery about her shoulders, and she only cursed him more.
She entered the barn, hands on her hips and a dozen or more truly inspirational words of warning itching upon her tongue, only to stop short when she spied her son. He stood, in his nightshirt, no less, with thin legs braced wide, atop what she knew well to be the broken seat of a buckboard wagon long left to disrepair. In his fists he held the reins to a monstrous black horse who looked just moments from plunging through the sagging side of the barn.
Those inescapable talons of maternal instinct gripped her. “Christian, good God, get down!
The horse blew furiously and pawed the hay-strewn floor, casting her a dubious sidelong glance. And her son made no move to comply with her order. Instead, he did the inconceivable.
Her son looked at her blankly for a moment then twisted about and glanced over his shoulder into the shadows on the other side of the buggy. The movement caused his bare feet to slip on the leather seat, and he teetered precariously upon his perch. “Logan, it’s okay if I stay up here, isn’t it? You fixed the seat and you said I could climb up here...”
Jessica could stand it no longer. In three huge strides, she reached the buggy, hoisted her skirts to midthigh and launched herself up. She snatched her son from the jaws of danger, clutched him painfully close, and would have executed a smooth descent from the thing...somehow...only she found herself grasped about the waist and lifted from her feet. Intimately, actually, too intimately, or perhaps it was simply her knowledge of the strength required of those arms to perform the task so effortlessly. And one of those arms injured, at that. Then again, her terror had sapped all air from her lungs long before her feet again met with the floor.
Releasing Christian, she spun about, only to hear her mouth snap closed with an undeniable click. He stood so close she had to crane her neck, her gaze enduring an interminable path from his chest, which was graciously covered in an expanse of butter-colored cloth, past the red kerchief knotted at his throat, over the arrogant thrust of his jaw and that annoyingly deep cleft in his chin...
Her insides compressed, forcing what was left of her breath from her lips in one long, hideous sigh. He’d shaved. And bathed. And combed his hair. He smelled of clean leather and spice.
And he looked absolutely marvelous. Not the least bit like an outlaw. For one brief moment.
And then he grinned, a flash of startling white that set the sun ablaze in his golden eyes and set Jessica’s anger to boiling.
How dare he stand there and look so god-awful smug, as though he’d enjoyed a restful night of sleep?
She opened her mouth and...
“Good morning, ma’am.”
Jessica sucked in a hissing breath, feeling frustration like a clamp about her chest. “I should say not, Mr. Stark. How dare you allow my son to clamber about on that broken-down—?”
“He fixed it, Mama.”
“I don’t care if he birthed it this very morning. You could have been killed, and that animal—”
“His name is Jack, Mama.”
“A true misnomer if there ever was one. He looks like a Hades to me, entirely untrustworthy, capable of eating you alive and—”
“We’re gonna go to town in the buckboard, aren’t we, Logan? We don’t have to walk ever, ever again.”
There it was, that undeniable reverence in her son’s voice, something so entirely recognizable because Jessica had never heard it before in Christian’s voice. Damn and blast this outlaw, thinking to point out her shortcomings, to outdo her,
the inept female. His job was simply to
She glared up at him. “Mr. Stark—”
“Logan.” How infuriating the smooth mellowness of his voice, just as infuriating as the mocking serenity of this morning. “You’re awfully angry, ma’am, and the sun not yet risen.”
“As if a woman’s emotions are governed by the simple rising of the sun.”
“No, that would be too simple, ma’am.”
Jessica sucked in yet another breath and flung her arm at the buckboard. “How could you
a small boy to...to—? Have you any notion what harm could have befallen him? Or were you so distracted by your own little whatever it was that you were doing—”
“Oiling the wheels, ma’am.”
“See there? You were far too consumed with your oiling to even take notice of his safety, much less his state of undress. But, of course,
is left to the womenfolk of the world.
men wander aimlessly about, entirely consumed with
“We women, why, we’ve been bred for centuries to be able to do ten things simultaneously, not the least of which is to see to the menfolk’s
care, divine happiness and—”
“I don’t want to hear your excuses, Mr. Stark. Trust me, I’ve heard them all before, and—”
“I’m not finished, Mr. Stark.” Ah, but all this letting go of her anger felt so divine, even if a part of her realized a good bit of that anger had nothing to do with Stark. The blood pumped vigorously through her limbs, filling her with a vitality she hadn’t felt in months. Yes, she could remain unmoved by the slight shifting of his brows, the narrowing of his eyes upon her, as though she had given him a window to her very soul. Indeed. A man like him, short on book learning, thinking himself long on cunning. Ha! “I’ll have you know, Mr. Stark, my son never,
attempted such shenanigans before
arrived.” She punctuated this with a jab of her finger into the middle of his rock hard chest.
He quirked a brow. “Really? Funny, but—” He paused, shook his head and stuffed his hands in his pockets in an abominably cavalier manner. “I don’t suppose that matters.”
Jessica stared at him, feeling the blood slowly draining from her face. “What? What doesn’t matter? Are you saying that I would allow my son—”
“I would never even imply that, ma’am, knowing you as I do. No, there are some things even a mother like you won’t ever control in her child, shenanigans being the least of it. Especially a boy.”
” Again, she jabbed his chest. And then something in his eyes, a deep and wild darkening of gold to bronze, sent a shaft of warning through her, despite all her exhilaration. She turned away from him, seeking her misplaced son under the buggy. “Christian, come with Mama now. You’ve got to get dressed and eat. I baked some—” She jerked upright and froze. Her mouth sagged in horror. “My bread! Good heavens, my bread has been in the oven for—!”
She spun right, nearly slammed into the buggy, whirled left and almost plowed into Stark’s beast. She spun again and slammed right into Stark’s chest. A solitary wail of despair fled her lips before she could snatch it back in dismay.
“Jess—” Her name flowed around her like warm sunlight, soothing. As though she would ever require or need his comfort. She would have pummeled that chest if he hadn’t caught her arms and held her fast. “It’s okay, Jess. It’s only one loaf of bread.”
“And I burned it!” she yelled up at him, almost stricken when she felt the hated burn of tears at the backs of her eyes. No, she would never,
allow this man to see any emotional weakness. She might need his physical strength, but never anything more from him. “No, you would never understand that, would you?”
“Yes, I do, Jess.”
“Don’t call me that!” she spat, twisting from his grasp. And then she fled the barn without turning back, because the tears did fall then, and she couldn’t stop them.
* * *
She’d barely looked at Rance, much less her newly restored buckboard, as he handed her up onto the freshly polished seat. Instead, she gave Jack a glare full of dire warnings and then directed all her attention to something far out on the bleak distant horizon for the duration of the ride to Twilight—that is, when she wasn’t fussing over Christian.
A sound ignoring, that was what it was. She sat ramrod-straight, her straw hat angled abruptly away from him, white-gloved hands folded in her lap over a small straw purse, upturned nose poking skyward, full lips stalwart and compressed as if she were sucking very hard upon a lemon.
Rance had a hell of a time keeping his eyes off her.
All that stubborn pride. He’d never encountered so much in a man before, much less a woman, even the gun-toting bandit queens he’d encountered. And yet in her he found it compelling, too damned compelling, and her not a harsh and cynical version of a woman, but innocent still. And young, younger than her years. The sunlight spilling through her hair, the delicate curving length of her neck, the trembling of her chin when she’d yelled up at him. And the feel of all that injured pride against him, rousing a deeply yearning hunger in him.
“Can I hold the reins, Logan?” Christian asked. “You said I could, remember?”
Rance kept his gaze between Jack’s ears on the twin ruts that cleaved through the prairie, but even so he felt the heat of her glare over her son’s head far more than he did the sun slapping at the back of his neck. The leather hung loose in his hands, a sure testament to the trust he’d placed in his animal long ago. His gaze shifted over the desolate horizon. “Maybe your mama would like to try first.”
Christian squawked. “She’s afraid of everything.”
“I am not,” came the hot retort.
“Yes, you are, Mama. Remember that horse Pa had? You said he was a nasty old thing that cost too much money and ate your flowers and bit.”
“Precisely,” Jessica retorted. “He indeed ate every last one of my geraniums, and he bit your pa.”
Christian grinned wickedly at Rance. “In the butt.”
Don’t ever say that again.”
“Say what, Mama? That he bit him? He did. Right in the butt.”
“Oh, good grief.”
“Mama had to clean it and bandage it, and my pa howled like a coyote-wolf.”
“Christian, shut your mouth at once.”
“He couldn’t sit without a pillow for a week. Mama was so mad. She said she wouldn’t make him supper till he sold that horse. But he said no and she made him supper anyway, ‘cause Miss Beecher says a good wife don’t send her family to bed on an empty tummy.”
send,” Jessica said quickly. “Not don’t. Now, keep quiet.”
“Who’s Miss Beecher?” Rance asked.
“Mama has her book.”
“Of course I do. Miss Beecher projects sound views on thrift, morals, and improved diet. We could all stand a good browse from time to time.”
“Mama always looks in it.”
“I most certainly do not.”
“Yes, you do, Mama. You have lots of books to help you be a good wife. You’re lookin’ in them all the time.”
“Christian, I don’t want to hear another sound from you.”
“You were afraid of Pa’s horse, Mama.”
“Anyone of sound mind would have been. Give me those.” She reached one of those pristine white-gloved hands across her son and grabbed the reins. Rance had the impression that she did so solely to quiet her son. She didn’t seem the sort to want it known her departed husband’s hind end had once been fodder for some animal. Still, the image brought Rance a certain deeply felt satisfaction, as did her sputtering. He had to struggle to keep a bemused look from his face, and he directed his scowl at nothing in particular.
Jack would have kept to any pace simply on Rance’s verbal command. It mattered little in whose hands the reins were gripped. But Jess didn’t know that. And damned if Rance didn’t detect the slightest softening of her mouth, a decided satisfaction in the angling of her silly hat down at her son. No, but she wouldn’t allow her eyes to even alight upon
Damned proud woman. He wondered if she had any idea how beautiful she looked with that ribbon fluttering like wings about her and her hair ablaze with prairie fire.
She kept the reins all the way to Twilight, smack down the center of Main Street, and even managed to haul back on them with a bit too much fervor when they pulled before Ledbetter’s General Store. Perhaps because of all those curious stares they’d drawn since the moment the buggy rolled into town, stares that seemed to force Jessica’s nose up another notch. But Rance had far more to occupy his thoughts at the moment. Far more, in the form of his own Wanted handbills, fluttering in the hot midmorning breeze upon nearly every storefront, amid all the other handbills. Twenty-five hundred to the man who could bring him in alive. A thousand for his dead body.
Spotz must be itching to watch him die to offer bounty like that.
He’d purposely cropped his hair short to fall over his forehead, and he’d shaved and pulled his hat well over his eyes. Had even chosen a light-colored shirt and kerchief, the better to go unrecognized. No, he looked nothing like some artist’s rendering of the long-haired, black-garbed, bearded outlaw Rance Logan. Yet his own bleak stare seemed to taunt him from every handbill as he alighted from the buggy and attempted to assist Jessica. But she’d already hopped down, obviously spurning his attempt at gallantry. Surely this was not in deference to his shoulder.
She barely glanced at him, her eyes instead straying past him, toward Ledbetter’s. He saw the flicker of something cross her face, a momentary dissolving of all those barriers, when her wide gaze finally met with his. An unseen fist slammed into his middle. No, she couldn’t possibly recognize him. Or could she?
He saw uncertainty there, so fleeting, yet so profound, all his worry fled him. She was, without doubt, primly lifted nose and all, entirely uncomfortable here in Twilight. Perhaps even more than he.