Authors: Shirl Henke
"Oh, I'm up to it, Princess, but I don't think you are. . . ." His voice trailed away, gravelly and suggestive.
He had made some sort of sexual reference, she knew, but did not understand. Still, she could see that her presence disturbed him. His eyes were smoldering like molten silver and his body was taut. Then, as she reached around him with the bandages, she glanced down and saw the bulge in his denims. Her face flamed anew and she faltered.
Sensing her thoughts and furious at his own body's reaction to her, Jess lashed out. "You see the effect you have on a man like me, Princess. You'd better scamper back to that big fancy house and lock all the doors."
She tied off the bandage but was strangely unable to back away from him. Head bowed, she whispered, "What if I don't want to run away?"
"Then this is what happens," he said savagely as one arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her tightly against his half-naked body, while the other hand tangled in her fiery curls, tilting her face up to his. His mouth descended with deliberate roughness, pressing against hers as he held her immobile. When she gasped for breath, his tongue plundered inside, dancing across her small, smooth teeth and twining with her tongue.
He seemed to consume her, tasting, stroking, taking as his lips ground against hers and his hot, bare skin fused with her cool starched cotton dress until it was rucked up and wrinkled, filled with the scent of the male.
At first Lissa was frightened, but only for an instant. She had wondered what his kiss would feel like when she watched him meld his body with the music hall woman's. Now he was showing her. And it was glorious. Her arms crept around his narrow waist, and she raised herself into the kiss, opening to it, to him, emulating his every movement with the untutored hunger of the curious young virgin he had named her.
Jess could feel her return the embrace, fusing her body to his in blind acquiescence. His blood boiled in his veins as it had not since he was a callow boy on fire during his first sexual encounter. One hand cupped her breast while the other raised her buttocks, grinding her hips in rhythm with his.
Almost. He almost threw her onto the bunk and ripped her clothes off, but the sound of horses' hooves pounding up to the corral and the old cook's greeting broke through his haze of lust.
"Howdy, Mr. Jacobson. Figgered you'd be here afore roundup started."
Jess pushed her away from him and she stumbled back, nearly falling against his bunk. Her delicate skin was abraded by whisker burns, and her eyes were dilated. One small hand touched fingertips to lips. Her breath, like his, was ragged. Seizing a shirt, he pulled it on, then threw her supplies into the basket and thrust it at her. "Here, take this and get the hell out of here before I end up having to shoot your pa!"
When she took the basket and numbly began to walk to the side door, he grabbed her arm and pointed her to the opposite end of the long building. "That way. He's heading into the stable. Don't let him catch you, or there'll be hell to pay."
Clutching the basket to her breasts, Lissa fled down the creaky wooden planks and out the door. She was up the road and inside the house before Marcus emerged from the stable.
Germaine set the platter of sausages down beside the tall, fluffy stack of pancakes, then bustled stiffly from the room, leaving Lissa and Marcus alone to eat their breakfast.
He served himself, cut a neat square of golden pancake dripping with sticky syrup and ate it, then wiped his mouth with the snowy napkin. "Germaine tells me you rode up to the front door on Jesse Robbins's horse, making quite a spectacle of yourself."
I wondered how long it would take her to spill her venom. "I was forced to ride with him. My horse fell into quicksand, and I had to change into city clothes. I couldn't ride astride that way or I'd have really created a spectacle."
"You were soaked to the skin."
"That's what usually happens when I get caught in a thunderstorm. The storm came up so suddenly I was already drenched before he could give me his poncho." She did not add that he had been inside the rain gear with her.
"She also said you tended the half-breed's gunshot wound." His pale blue eyes studied her.
Lissa shrugged carelessly. "Germaine didn't approve, I realize, but you know I'm a capable nurse."
"I was never happy about you volunteering in that St. Louis hospital, but at least you only treated females and children. I don't want you mixing with common cowhands, Princess."
"For all you're paying this fellow, it scarce seemed sensible to leave him to Vinegar's home remedies."
He took a sip of coffee, then stared at her over the rim of the cup. "I'm paying the fellow so much because he has a fearful reputation. He's a hired killer. Not at all the sort any decent woman should associate with."
"Sewing up his gashed side is scarcely the same as letting him escort me to the roundup dance," she said with asperity. "I thought you wanted me to take an interest in J Bar."
"I do, Princess. But your role is to preside over the household, not work with the men."
"Preside over the household—humph," she said pettishly. "With Germaine in charge, I can scarcely walk through the parlor, much less preside over anything."
His expression grew stony as he carefully set his cup down. "We've had this discussion about Germaine before, Lissa. The matter is closed. She has been an excellent and invaluable employee, and I will not dismiss her."
"Why not? What is it about her—what hold does she have over you?"
"That will be quite enough, Lissa. Germaine stays." His eyes were as cold as a Wyoming blue norther. "You'll have to make your peace with her."
"How can I? Every time I so much as set foot outside my room, she tattles to you about my supposed indiscretions. She hates me, Papa."
"Nonsense. You're just too headstrong for your own good. You don't use common sense. I attribute part of the blame to your being raised in St. Louis."
She threw down her napkin. "I never asked to be sent away. You decided I had to go."
"You needed a woman's touch after your mother died, Lissa. Don't tell me you didn't enjoy going to school in St. Louis."
"You know I did, but—"
"No buts, young lady. I've worked and slaved to build a fine life for you, but you have to understand how things are done in Wyoming. All Germaine has done is to point out your unsuitable behavior. Take the matter of Jesse Robbins. He has Indian and Mexican blood, Lissa."
"I did nothing wrong, Papa. I've treated the injuries of the other hands ever since I came home last year. Germaine has made this into something . . . sordid."
"He was shot in the side, and you had him strip off his shirt to work on the wound."
"I could scarcely tend it if he kept his shirt on," she countered stubbornly.
"That's just the point—he was unclothed in front of you and you're an unmarried young lady."
Her cheeks heated as she remembered seeing far more of Jesse Robbins when he was naked in his bath. "So, we're back to marriage again," she said with a frustrated sigh.
"Lemuel Mathis is a fine man, eminently suitable for you, Lissa. I have tried to be patient, as has he, but you're trying us both sorely."
"I know how you feel, Papa ... but I'm not certain how I feel. What if I chose someone else?"
He looked up sharply. "You've always said there was no one else."
She made a dismissive gesture with her hand. "There is Yancy Brewster. He asked me to the spring roundup dance."
His eyes narrowed. "Brewster's only a foreman. It'll be years before he can afford to build his own spread."
"But he knows cattle. He'd be as good a choice as Lemuel to run J Bar. That is your main concern, after all."
"You know that's not true, Princess. I want you to be happy."
"Then give me some time to look around, please, Papa."
"You really fancy Brewster?" He cocked one eyebrow and stroked his chin consideringly.
In fact, she thought Yancy a mean-spirited bully, but he had been courting her and right now she grasped for any straw just to keep her father from foisting Lemuel Mathis on her. And to keep him from discovering her fascination with the forbidden Jesse Robbins. "I don't know that I really fancy him. Why not wait and see how things develop? Hell be at the dance and so will Lemuel...." She smiled impishly and let the matter drop.
Marcus resumed eating his breakfast. Neither father nor daughter saw the venomous look Germaine gave Lissa from the kitchen doorway.
* * * *
Jess rode up to the big canvas-covered wagon. Its tailgate was pulled out to form a worktable where the J Bar cook, Vinegar Joe Riland, was busy beating biscuits for the noon meal. The wiry little man spat tobacco without missing a beat with his big wooden spoon. Vinegar Joe wore a perpetual scowl on his wizened face, which was covered by a grizzled salt-and-pepper beard with a peculiar reddish cast—whether the color was a freak of nature or the result of stains from his chaw was conjectural.
One lantern-jawed older hand tossed the silty remains from his tin cup and said, "Now I ain't kickin', Vinegar, but I had to chaw on thet coffee afore I cud swaller it."
Vinegar spat again, then fixed the offender with one baleful brown eye while its mate wandered vaguely off to stare in Jess's general direction. "They ain't no such thing as coffee too strong— only men too weak."
Several men guffawed as they nodded greetings to Jess. He dismounted and tied Blaze to a wagon wheel.
"Morning, Vinegar," he said as he reached for a cup and poured himself some of the inky brew.
"Yew come ta bitch about my java, too?" the old cook snorted, still beating the sticky grayish batter in the big crockery bowl.
Jess took a swallow and raised the cup. "Coffee's Texas strong."
What was almost a smile creased the old man's face. "It takes a real Texan to know whut's good," he said, casting a disparaging glance toward the hand who had complained.
The sounds of roundup sent up a cacophony in the swirling dust. Calves bawled, and cowboys cursed and sweated in the noon heat. They roped and dragged the critters up to the fires, where others wrestled the thrashing animals down, bound them by three legs, and held them fast. Then the cattle were branded with the appropriate iron. Simultaneously, other hands wielding sharp knives notched their ears. With the smell of their own burning hair and hide in their nostrils, the calves were then released to scamper back to their mothers.
The work was grueling and endless, from predawn to full dark, up to six weeks in the larger districts set up by the Association. When all the spring stock had been branded and cattle returned to their home ranges, soon it would be time for the fall roundups to commence. Then the four-year- old beeves were trailed to the railhead in Cheyenne for sale.
Jess watched the men work around one of the fires as he sipped his coffee. He sauntered over to where the old cook was working, away from the rest of the men.
Vinegar chomped on his plug as he studied Jess with that unnerving single-focused eye. "Whut kin I do fer ya?"
Jess nodded, then asked, "Billy Argee have any special friends on the J Bar crew?"
Vinegar rolled out a slab of biscuit dough with a few hard, practiced strokes of his big wooden rolling pin. "Heerd yew up 'n sent him on fer harp lessons."
Jess smiled grimly. "Where he went, I reckon he more likely was fitted for coal shoveling."
"Kid was a loner. Always on the prod, kindy like a rained-on rooster."
"That's what Tate said," Jess echoed noncommittally.
"The kid in with them rustlers? Guess it don't surprise me none. Yew figger they's more J Bar hands in on this, don't yew?" He scratched his head and considered for a moment, then began cutting biscuits and tossing them into a heavy tin pan.
"Could be. I'd be obliged if you pass along anything suspicious you see or hear." The cook nodded briskly and continued his task as Jess ambled toward the branding fire. Where in the hell was old Marcus? Jacobson had agreed to meet him at the roundup site and show him the location from which the last herd had been stolen. He had slept later in deference to his injured side, fully expecting the old man to be in the thick of the roundup when he arrived. Perhaps something could be gleaned around the fire. He stood off to the side and listened to the men exchange banter while he waited.
Lissa saw him standing alone as she and her father approached the camp. A small shiver of anticipation danced along her spine, but she maintained a carefully neutral expression on her face. When Cormac bounded ahead, she did not call him back. He loved Vinegar's biscuits. But the dog surprised her, heading directly toward Jess, who had his back turned. Her first impulse was to yell out a warning, but she glanced quickly at Marcus and decided against it. If Cormac took a shine to the gunman, all the better—as long as her father did not think she had done anything to encourage it.