Read My Darling Melissa Online

Authors: Linda Lael Miller

Tags: #Romance, #Fiction, #Historical, #General

My Darling Melissa (41 page)

BOOK: My Darling Melissa
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“Wong needs your help with dinner,” he said.

Melissa looked up at him in despair. “Oh, Quinn, you weren’t serious!” she wailed. “I don’t know anything about cooking for so many people!”

Quinn smiled at her, showing his straight white teeth. “Do you want everybody to say that you’re only a bird in a gilded railroad car?” he inquired.

Melissa wrenched her arm free of Quinn’s grasp. “Damn you, Rafferty, it was your idea to bring me up here in the first place! Don’t you dare stand there and lecture me about how it’s going to look if I don’t pretend to be a cook!”

Quinn shrugged. “Whatever you say, Calico,” he agreed. “But remember, the general consensus will be that you were brought up here to take care of my baser needs.”

“Isn’t that the truth?” Melissa demanded, glaring at him, her arms locked stubbornly across her breasts.

His mouth quirked at one corner, and his mischievous brown eyes caught the sunlight and turned to flecks of amber. “Of course it is,” he mocked in a soft voice. “Don’t worry, love. You’ll get your chance at me after the sun goes down.”

Melissa had a wild urge to stomp both feet and scream in fury, but she didn’t indulge it. “Wonderful,” she purred in response. “Then the first thing I’ll do is slap you silly!”

Quinn laughed and pointed to a long, weathered building with smoke curling out of its chimney. “There’s the cook house, Calico. Enjoy the afternoon.”

Melissa’s throat tightened over a shriek of annoyance. She turned on one heel and stormed into the cook house, where she was immediately put to work peeling gnarled potatoes. She worked for an hour and escaped when Mr. Wong left the sweltering kitchen to argue with a peddler in the dooryard.

Desperately hungry, she stole the heel of a ham and half a loaf of bread from Wong’s supplies before dashing out through the front. Safe inside the railroad car, she wolfed down the food and then, yawning, sat on the edge of the bed to unfasten her shoes and kick them off. Soon she was curled up on the fur spread, sound asleep.

She was awakened hours later by gentle hands rolling down her stockings. “No,” she whimpered, “please. I’m too tired.”

Quinn chuckled in the gathering twilight. “I know, Calico,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry.”

He undressed her and then helped her into her nightgown before lighting a lamp.

“Don’t you want any supper?” he asked.

The ham and bread had worn off, and Melissa was starving. “Do I have to go back in the cook house and face Mr. Wong?”

Quinn shook his head and grinned, disappearing around the partition to reappear moments later with a plate.

Melissa reached out for the food eagerly. There was fried chicken, corn, and mashed potatoes with gravy, and she ate hungrily. “I peeled these potatoes,” she said between mouthfuls, to justify herself.

Quinn looked mock-stern. “To hear him tell it, Mr. Wong is going to peel
you
if he catches you in his kitchen again. He wanted you to shuck the corn and wash up the breakfast dishes.”

Melissa waved a chicken leg at Quinn like a conductor’s baton. “Let that be a lesson to you. You should never shanghai people and drag them off to lumber camps. It just isn’t done, Mr. Rafferty.”

He only smiled at her and waited patiently for her to finish eating. When she had, he disappeared for the better part of ten minutes, returning with buckets of steaming
water. While Melissa watched, he dragged a copper bathtub around the partition and then began filling it from the buckets. “I’d have made you carry my water, but you’re pregnant,” he said reasonably.

Melissa swung her legs over the side of the bed. “That seems to save me from any number of indignities,” she remarked.

Quinn was taking off his clothes. “Most, but not all,” he agreed, and when he was naked he stepped into the water and sat down with a lusty sigh of contentment. “Come and wash my back,” he said.

Pushing up her sleeves, Melissa walked over to the tub, knelt beside it, and took up soap and a washcloth. “When are we going home?” she demanded, scouring his grimy back.

“Don’t worry,” he replied magnanimously, “we’ll be back in time for you to waltz off to the picnic with Mitch.”

Melissa had forgotten all about Mitch and the social gathering that would take place at the Seaside Hotel on Saturday. Being reminded of Mr. Williams naturally brought Gillian to mind, and she struck the back of Quinn’s head with the washcloth. “While you escort the lovely Miss Aires, of course,” she said.

His powerful, sun-browned shoulders moved in a shrug. “If she’s there. Gillian’s leaving town as soon as she can unload her half of the hotel on some poor sucker, you know. She’s in love with your English friend, Calico.”

Melissa was glad that Quinn couldn’t see her face and read the varied emotions reflected there. She was overjoyed that Gillian was going away, but she was also troubled by the prospect of telling Mr. Rafferty exactly who his new partner was. “I think whoever buys Gillian’s share is getting a bargain,” she said.

“I just hope they want to run the place,” Quinn said with a tired sigh. “I hate being cooped up in that office with all those little old ladies running in to tell me that I ought to plant petunias by the front door or get the chef to fix some cherished family recipe they just happen to have brought along from home.”

Melissa laughed and tossed the washcloth into his lap. “I think it would be fun managing a hotel,” she said.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Quinn grumbled.

Melissa thought it was a fortuitous time to change the subject, and besides, she had an almost unbearable craving for something sweet. “Do you suppose Mr. Wong would be angry if I took some of that cherry pie I saw hidden away in the pantry today?” she asked.

“Yes, but help yourself anyway,” Quinn replied.

Melissa bit her lower lip and cast a look at the darkened windows, thinking of bears and snakes and marauding lumberjacks. “Will you go with me?”

Quinn nodded. “As soon as I finish my bath, Calico,” he promised.

He took his time doing that, but presently he was dressed and following Melissa through the moonlit night toward the cook house. They hadn’t gone twenty feet when an awful explosion sounded behind them and the railroad car splintered into a million flaming pieces.

Twenty-four

The blast hurled Melissa forward; she smelled and tasted pine needles, and small stones embedded themselves in her flesh. Quinn sheltered her with his body until the fiery debris had stopped falling down around them, and then he rolled away, looking back at the holocaust with a muttered curse.

Melissa was trembling as she turned over and sat staring at the inferno that had almost claimed both their lives. She dusted the pine needles and dirt from her nightgown and got shakily to her feet. Meanwhile, men and women alike came running from every corner of the camp.

The immediate danger was that the fire still consuming the bulk of the railroad car would spread through the camp and then into the timber.

Quinn grasped Melissa’s shoulders with such sudden force that she was startled. “Are you all right?” he rasped.

Melissa nodded, still too shaken to speak.

He issued his orders clearly, and in a tone that brooked no argument. “Stay out of the way until the fire is out, but don’t wander off by yourself.”

Again Melissa nodded. The lumberjacks were already starting up a steam-powered compressor; soon water was spewing out of hoses connected to a special tank. She ran barefoot through the camp, zigzagging around hot embers that glowed on the ground until she reached the school-house.

There, after some foraging, she found paper and half a dozen sharp pencils and then hurried back to the scene of the fire to scribble hasty notes as she watched the lumberjacks battle blazes that threatened the nearby woods. She had lost several chapters of her book in the explosion, but there was no time to grieve.

When the fire was finally out she went to the cook house, following the other women. She sat alone at the end of one of the tables, reading over her notes and making changes with quick strokes.of her pencil. Her lower lip was caught between her teeth, and she looked up, startled, when someone laid a blanket over her shoulders.

Quinn was standing there, his face, hair, and clothes black with soot. With a glance at her papers he sat down on the bench beside her and gave a weary sigh. “I thought I told you to stay with the others.”

The women of the camp had gathered at a different table, where they were drinking coffee and chattering excitedly about the events of the night. Melissa was tired and shaken, and she didn’t feel like doing battle. She changed the subject. “What happened out there tonight, Quinn? That car didn’t just blow up and burst into flames all by itself, did it?”

Quinn shook his head and ran one hand through blackened, greasy hair. “It was dynamited, and some kerosene had been tossed around for good measure.”

Melissa’s eyes were wide. “Then someone tried to kill us?” she asked, horrified.

A muscle in Quinn’s jaw twitched. “They were probably after me,” he said, not looking at her.

She laid a hand on his arm and for the first time realized that her own skin was smudged with soot, too. She knew
that he was trying not to frighten her further, and to save her embarrassment, but there was no sense in pretending that everyone in camp hadn’t known of her presence in that car.

Quinn’s hand rested over hers, and she was reminded of the way he’d sheltered her after the explosion. A wild sort of tenderness filled her. “Who would do a thing like that, Quinn?” she whispered. “Who wants to see you dead?”

“I can think of a couple of people,” he replied, gazing off into space. His Adam’s apple moved along his grimy neck as he swallowed. “Melissa, you’ve got to go back to Port Hastings until I find out. You’re not safe here.”

She scooted a little closer to him on the bench and lowered her voice. “I’m not going anywhere, Quinn Rafferty,” she argued. “Why, I wouldn’t have a moment’s peace for wondering if you were all right!”

He turned and smiled briefly at her, his teeth startlingly white against his dirty face. There was sadness in his eyes, though, and a stoop to his shoulders. “I wonder if you’ll still feel that way after I’ve told you the whole truth.”

Before Quinn could elaborate one of the women approached to say that she had fixed up a bed in one of the new cabins. Her eyes carefully skirted Melissa, making her feel like a pariah.

“I guess we’d better try to get some sleep,” Quinn said to Melissa after he’d thanked the woman and she’d gone away. “I’ve got some people to track down in the morning.”

Melissa didn’t like the sound of that. “You should let the sheriff handle this, Quinn,” she objected, holding the blanket around her with one hand and clutching the notes for a newspaper article about the fire in the other.

Once they were outside Quinn noticed that Melissa’s feet were bare and unceremoniously hoisted her up into his arms, “Now you’ll have to rewrite part of your book,” he said, in a transparent attempt to distract her from the subject at hand.

Melissa pulled an arm out of the blanket and curved it around Quinn’s neck. “Right now I’m just happy not to be dead,” she replied. Horror possessed her again as she
thought of all the things that could have happened. For instance, she might have left the railroad car by herself, instead of making Quinn go along… .

She buried her face in his neck and thanked God that he’d been spared.

It was only when they’d entered the cabin that had been prepared for them that Melissa asked, “What did you mean earlier, about hoping I’d still care for you when I knew the whole truth?”

Quinn waited until Melissa was settled in the makeshift bed of blankets and sheets that had been arranged on the floor, then blew out the lamp and began stripping off his clothes. “We’ll talk about that in the morning,” he said. “Right now I need you to hold me so I won’t forget that you’re alive.”

Melissa was so touched by this revelation of vulnerability, and so much in need of holding herself, that she didn’t press for an answer to her question. Morning would come soon enough, and she and Quinn were both damned lucky to be around to see it. When he stretched out beside her and drew her into his arms, she went willingly.

Their lovemaking was slow and methodical that night, an affirmation of life and love that reassured Melissa and comforted her in a very profound way. When Quinn stiffened upon her and cried out in abandon she didn’t care that the walls were thin and the other cabins close by. If everyone in the world knew that she’d given her man solace when he needed her, that was fine with Melissa.

The morning brought hectic activity. Although he’d promised to confess some secret sin to her when they awakened, Quinn had already gone when Melissa opened her eyes. She saw that someone, probably Dana, had brought her a set of clothes and a pair of shoes, and she was grateful. Running around camp in a nightgown was fine when it was dark and there was a major disaster going on, but in the broad light of day it would naturally have been another matter.

When Melissa reached the cook house, where breakfast
was being served, she hesitated on the step, shy about going inside. It wouldn’t be easy to face all those men, aware that they’d seen her in her nightgown and knew she’d shared Quinn’s private railroad car. It was only the golden band on her finger, which she’d refused to take off, that gave her the courage to step through the open doorway.

BOOK: My Darling Melissa
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