Authors: Kate Watterson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Erotica
“If you don’t mind, I’d just as soon that isn’t what’s for supper.” He slipped off his own horse and started to lead it towards the barn. “Robert’s a decent cook.”
“Good thing one of us is.” Jace’s grin was good-natured, his spurs clinking musically as they walked along. “But I have to say that Tori’s learnin’ some. Those biscuits weren’t too bad last night.”
“Those biscuits tasted like shit, but you’re right, not as bad as the last time, so that’s something. She sure is trying.” Cole lifted his brows. “You ate two just to impress her, but maybe to a man willing to eat a dead skunk, her biscuits aren’t too bad.”
Jace held up a lean hand. “Hey, that’s just an expression from where I’m from.”
“Glad I’m not from Texas then, because—”
They both glanced up and stopped dead. The subject of their conversation had come out onto the porch, dressed in her boyish garb, her hair shining red-gold in the shimmer of the sunset.
Then Victoria said three magical words. “I was worried.”
When the hell was it last someone had worried about me?
Cole pondered, couldn’t come up with an answer, and for a moment—brief but telling—he could swear his eyes stung.
Ridiculous, but there it was. The power of a woman’s smile, the thought of her watching for their return… He’d spent so many years expecting to die and have a lonely grave somewhere that he wasn’t able to reply. It was Jace who said, “We found the herd. Not just a stray cow or two but enough head that we aren’t going to have buy a lot of stock to get the ranch going.”
To Cole’s surprise, she understood the implications. Her smile was as radiant as the colors touching the mountains as the sun sank over the top. “How wonderful.”
No, what was wonderful was the sight of her, waiting for them.
His life had changed. Whether it was his mother’s gods or fate, he wasn’t sure, but it had irrevocably changed.
For all of them.
It might be blessing or a curse, but it was his day at the ranch house.
Jace didn’t mind—he’d be damned stupid if he did—but it was still a strain on his self-control and he wasn’t long on patience in the first place.
So he said in a slow drawl, “You’re up early this mawnin’.”
Victoria glanced up, her hands wet from the water she was using to splash on her face from the bucket, her expression startled…then it relaxed, and a natural smile surfaced.
, Jace thought, his gaze raking hungrily over her shapely body clad in those boyish clothes, she was so gorgeous it almost hurt him to look at her. Shining golden hair was fashioned into a loose braid, and her skin held a dewy smoothness that made him ache to touch it, to test the texture and put it to memory.
And he would. Out of all of them, he was the least cultured, the least refined, and yet he could swear he understood her better than either one of his partners. She had guts, and he admired that attribute in anyone. Sure, Cole was as cool as a man could be, dead sure of himself, dangerous and hard, and Robert was more educated and sophisticated than either of them, but truthfully, Jace was pretty sure he connected with their English lady on a level that was entirely different.
Damn his romantic soul, but he’d fallen for her deep the minute he’d laid eyes on her. Victoria was a lot more than just another pretty girl like the ones he’d met, dallied with and then forgotten. This wasn’t going to be the same, and it was a revelation that it didn’t bother him she’d given herself to both Cole and Robert… He was willing to wait for the right time.
Funny that, when he was usually the impatient one, quick on the draw. But he’d learned impatience had a cost, and he’d paid plenty for his sins already. She was damn well worth holding on to his control for a little bit.
A week. They’d already been here for seven days. The ranch house was now habitable, the kitchen scrubbed and the woodstove working, the rodents for the most part cleared out, and though after that first night with Robert she’d slept alone, one of them had been on guard the entire time.
In a pragmatic sense, Jace had already decided, this was about survival. It was about lust—yes, he was damn certain of that—but there was a lot more to it. The outlaws and a proper English lady. It sounded like one of those outlandish books his mother had read back when they’d still had the ranch in Texas…
His mother, who had taught him to respect women. To respect them, and ultimately, if it was the right time, to offer the protection of his name.
But this wasn’t the right time. This was a remote valley in an unsettled territory, and the woman who even now was running a worn cloth over the slender column of her neck was not his exclusively. It didn’t matter—not to him. He knew how he felt, and whatever was between her and Cole, and her and Robert, he loved her.
“Some sort of creature was howling last night.” She set the cloth aside. “I’m not sure what it was, but it bothered me enough that when I drifted back to sleep, I dreamt about it.”
He slept with one eye open and both ears cocked, so he just grinned and admired how the mounds of her breasts pressed against the material of her shirt. “I think it was just an owl.”
He’d heard it too, a good old-fashioned screech owl that sounded like a woman with a knife twisted in her innards when it let loose, and it had startled him too for a moment before he’d rolled back into his bedroll, laughing at himself for being so darned jumpy.
“That isn’t possible.” Victoria frowned, her smooth brow creasing. “It was horrible. I almost got up to wake Cole but then it stopped and I wondered if I was dreaming.”
“Not the easiest sound on the ears,” he agreed, quirking a brow. He liked the way an errant damp curl was now plastered against her graceful neck. “But the only thing in these parts that screams like that besides a screech owl is a mountain lion, and I promise you Cole would have been on his feet, his rifle in his hand, if he’d heard that one.”
“Not the kind you’re thinkin’ of. Around here they call them pumas. They don’t live in prides like the ones in Africa.”
“Dangerous?” Her eyes had widened just a bit.
“Not usually. People aren’t their favorite prey, but it has been known to happen.” He picked up his cup and drank the last dregs. “They are born predators, and almost all true hunters like it easy. If you were a newborn calf or a lamb and a cougar came across you, of course. It’s just a really big cat, the kind you no doubt had slinkin’ along the streets in London. Picture that and make it about twenty times bigger. But you’d take a lot of work, and he ain’t interested in that.”
“I suppose that’s somewhat comforting.”
Jace had to laugh softly over the caustic tone of her voice. “Jest the truth. It’s nature. That’s why the young, the sick and the old go first. When our cows start to calve, we’ll have trouble, no doubt, but I haven’t seen any tracks yet.”
She moved to the cookstove, picked up the coffeepot and poured a cup as if she’d been doing that for herself all her life, which he knew for a fact she hadn’t. Her previous existence had been teas and servants and breakfast in bed, and how well she’d handled the change captivated him even more.
Maybe that was the magnetic pull. He loved her, but he also
“It’s good to know I am not considered old or sick, but I am not sure about being excluded from the category of young,” she said teasingly as she sat down across from him at the table. Then, with evident curiosity, she asked, “You have to be close to my age.”
“I’m twenty-four,” he told her frankly, “but I’d swear I’m a hundred. I’ve ridden from Texas to Canada and back again at least twice, done a couple of things I’m not proud of, and I’m not gainsayin’ that if I rode into my hometown today I wouldn’t be arrested and tossed in the local jail on the spot. The way I look at it, I’m not all good, but no one is, and I’m sure as hell not as bad as a lot of men out there. Youth isn’t defined by years, but experience. I’d like to think that I’ve done the best I could. I never killed anybody that didn’t deserve it twofold, and I ain’t makin’ any apologies either. I’ve been in a few scrapes, sure, but never because I robbed someone or did deliberate harm. I’m not built that way. Trouble happens out here. Sometimes the only justice available is a man’s gun. I’ve used mine more than I’ve cared to, but then again, I wasn’t given a choice.”
There. He’d come clean. He’d been meaning to for a while.
Was she horrified? He’d worried a bit about that. Cole was no angel, and Robert was guilty mostly by association with the two of them, but of the three, Jace was probably the most reckless. There was no doubt Cole had a bigger price on his head, but Jace knew he was wanted also in Texas. He’d never been ashamed of it—never had felt the need to explain himself to anyone else.
“I have no doubt,” she said quietly but with flattering conviction, “that you are telling me the truth. I admit the violence out here is a bit disconcerting, but then again, I come from England, where we seem to perpetually be at war. Killing is not endemic to this country. Mine has been involved in one bloodbath after another for centuries.”
“Put that way it doesn’t sound so bad. Still, I hate it,” Jace said matter-of-factly. “Never think I don’t. I’ll defend myself and what’s mine, but being just a bit faster keeps you alive. It’s not a skill to be proud of. I’m not just a gun-toting cowboy.”
Her eyes were exactly the color of the bluebells he remembered from his mother’s garden. Pure, clear and lovely, her lashes long and a much darker shade than her hair, her face somber, slender fingers curled around the thick base of her cup. “I never thought you were.”
you think I am?” He thought he had a right to ask. This was going to be their lives. He and Cole and Robert hadn’t yet discussed it, but as far as he could tell there was an unspoken understanding. Three very different men, one woman, and a wilderness as vast as the sky…
To a certain extent, they all needed each other. Sure, he could ride a grub-line, work here and there and wander, but once he’d decided he wanted his own place, his land, his stamp on this country, he’d hitched himself to Robert and Cole, and Victoria seemed the perfect addition…a dream come true.
“I think you’re…
.” She smiled at the inadequacy of the answer. “That isn’t well put, but—”
“No,” he said with ragged conviction, “it’s put just right. Everything about
is right. I’m crazy about you… I’d…I’d die for you, but that ain’t no secret to any of us, I suppose.” He stood abruptly, because if he stayed a second longer he’d haul her into his arms and prove every word he’d just said, but she hadn’t invited him yet. “I gotta go feed the horses. You should be fine here alone for jest a few minutes.”
There was no question she was following a path she’d never thought she’d take, but then again, how the devil had she ended up in the wilds of the Kansas Territory in the first place?
Fate. She had to wonder. Perhaps she’d never been destined to be a proper wife and gracious hostess, arranging fetes and dinner parties for a husband who virtually ignored her presence in his life unless he needed her to appear in public on his arm or wanted an heir.
Love was rarely the primary motivation in aristocratic marriages.
Jace was out in the barn, and she’d sat and contemplated what to do once he’d stalked out, but the truth was, she needed to talk to him. Of the three, he was by far the most sensitive. It was amusing that it was true, but while Cole was intense and Robert thoughtful, she thought Jace was probably the most vulnerable under his careless, desperado exterior.
He wanted her. She didn’t have any illusions, and she’d known that before she’d even lain with Cole, but that had been a spontaneous moment and had felt right at the time. She still didn’t regret it. How odd, when she had no doubt that Cole was probably the most guarded of the three of them, that she’d chosen him that day at the river.
At the moment, though, she was thinking about Jace and his fervent declaration of devotion, and truthfully, she believed him.
It had been a long time since someone had told her they loved her. Her mother maybe, before her illness took her.
He was shoveling hay when she slipped through the doors, his sleeves rolled up to reveal brawny forearms, his lean body tense, and his head whipped up at once to register her presence even before the horses snorted and shifted in their stalls. As per his usual lack of affectation, he said bluntly, “I left you alone on purpose.”
“I know.” Victoria skirted the bales of hay, not experienced enough to know precisely how to handle this situation. “But I don’t
to be alone.”
“If you’re here, you’d better be serious.” His voice took on a lower tone, his movements stilling as he watched her approach, knuckles white as he gripped the pitchfork. “I won’t touch you unless you want it, but don’t torture me, Tori.”
The nickname always startled her with its informality, but she liked the way he said it in that slow southern drawl. He was the only one who had decided to shorten her name in such a casual way. Both Cole and Robert called her Victoria, and Robert occasionally still used the even more formal address of Lady Victoria.
“That is not my intention.” She smiled, stopping in front of him, noting how the breadth of his shoulders strained the material of his shirt. The barn smelled earthy, redolent of livestock and hay, not so different from what she remembered of her father’s country estate. Yet definitely an ocean wide and country away with Jace standing there, the pitchfork in his hand, his blue eyes intense. His blond hair was long enough it curled damply against his neck.
“Say it plainly,” he said tersely. “I’m not going to guess at what you want.”
“To lie with you,” she replied simply, because actually it wasn’t complicated or catastrophic, but more a rite of passage that needed to be for both of them. At the river with Cole had been primal, and in the cabin with Robert had felt right and she didn’t regret it either, but this wasn’t impulsive, it was more like the romantic ideal she had of what it was like to desire and