Authors: Shirl Henke
At the dressmaker's across the street, the cluster of women watched Jesse Robbins disappear into the dark interior of the saloon. "Well, I do declare, a lady isn't safe on the streets of the territorial capital anymore. You really must move from this dreadful location, Charlene, or I shall just have to find another modiste," Louella pronounced to the chorused agreement of the others.
All but Lissa, who ignored the badgering of poor Charlene Durbin and glided across the cluttered shop to her dressing room. As she stripped off the satin gown, her thoughts were not of dresses or dances, but of the dark, dangerous stranger who worked for the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. She was dying to know who had hired Mr. Jesse Robbins.
* * * *
Jess walked into the Metropolitan Hotel and stopped to look around. Classy place all right, with big, ugly, overstuffed chairs covered in maroon velvet sitting in clusters around the lobby, flanked by potted palms that were as big and showy as any he had seen in Algiers or Tunis. Maroon and dark-blue carpeting swallowed up the sound of his footfalls as he strolled to the big walnut counter beside the steep stairs.
He leaned his leather weapon case against the wall, then swung his saddlebags from his shoulder and laid them on the wide countertop. "I'd like a room and a hot bath."
The hotel clerk drew back as if his nostrils had just been assailed with scrapings from a livery stable floor. His thin lips puckered up, causing his chin to retreat even further into his neck. "I don't think you got the right hotel, cowboy. Rawlins's place on Eddy Street might give you a room."
"I want a room here . . . now," Jess said in a low, silky voice.
"We don't take in no breeds—hotel policy," the clerk added quickly, half-indignant, half-wary as he watched the stranger's cold gray eyes lighten to the color of boiling mercury.
"I'm making an adjustment in hotel policy," Jess said, reaching for the register and the pen lying beside it. Before the sputtering clerk could stop him, he signed his name and shoved the book across the counter.
"The owners'll fire me," the clerk whined, as Jess tossed a gold piece on the counter and picked up his bags. He walked around the counter and pulled a key from one of the small wooden compartments on the wall, then turned toward the stairs.
"You can't just.. . just. .."
"Don't get your shirt full of fleas, Noah," a calm, stentorian voice interrupted. "The stranger works for me," a tall, elegant man with iron-gray hair and a thin, austere face informed the clerk.
"Mr. Jacobson. I didn't... I mean, I didn't know—"
"It's all right, Noah. Go see that Chris fetches up some bathwater for Mr. Robbins. And put Lissa's things in her room as well," Jacobson commanded as he bypassed the desk and approached Jess.
Jess set down his bags and sized up Marcus Jacobson. He was dressed in the plain rough clothes of a stockman who worked his own range. His hand, when he extended it, was callused from hard work, and his ice blue eyes were keen and incisive. Jess returned the handshake. "I'm a day early. Didn't think you'd be in town yet."
"Just arrived this afternoon. I'm going to the club to clean up before dinner."
Jess had heard of the famous Cheyenne Club, a private and very exclusive men's organization whose membership was restricted to the wealthiest of Wyoming cattlemen. He knew that no invitation would be extended to him to join Jacobson at that
establishment. They did not even allow cowhands, much less Indians. "I look forward to a long, hot soak myself," he replied noncommittally.
"Good. I'll be back here around seven. We can have dinner in the hotel dining room and discuss the job I need to have done."
Within half an hour, Jess was luxuriating in a steamy tub. The boy who had filled it seemed as nervous as a half-broken mustang, but had said nothing, merely done his job, then stuttered his thanks for the coins Jess had tossed him. He dismissed the memory and laid his head back against the rim of the fancy copper tub. A half-breed gunman always made folks nervous, whether it was in Texas or Wyoming.
Looking around the small bathing room, Jess admitted his surprise about the accommodations, which were modern and elegant. A water closet sat in one corner, and on the other side of the partially closed door was a suite with a parlor and a large, well-appointed bedroom. Purely by chance, he had helped himself to the fanciest setup in the place!
With almost ten thousand inhabitants, Cheyenne was more than a territorial capital. It was the main hub for the high plains cattle industry. The powerful Wyoming Stock Growers Association had its headquarters here, and the Union Pacific railroad shipped over one hundred thousand head of beef east every fall. Smiling to himself, Jess wondered how rich old Marcus Jacobson really was. He would soon find out. Jesse Robbins planned to charge a fearfully high fee for his services.
He had always spent his money as soon as he earned it, buying up more land and good breeding stock for his own small ranch in western Texas.
The Double R would never be as big and fancy as the spreads of cattle barons like Jacobson, but it was home for Jess and his younger brother, Jonah. A home they had earned with blood and tears.
Pushing thoughts of the tragic past from his mind, Jess considered the terms of his deal with Jacobson and began to lather up.
* * * *
Lissa tired of the gossiping women at the dressmaker's shop and left to meet her father at the hotel. By now he should have arranged for Chris to unload her baggage in her usual rooms and draw her a steamy bath.
When she entered the hotel, Noah was not at the front desk. Knowing the nasty-tempered little man's predilection for a late afternoon nip at the bottle, she considered herself fortunate. She would be able to slip upstairs without having to deal with him. Hoping her bath was ready, she reached behind the desk for her key. The pocket marked #12 was empty.
"Chris must have taken it so he could fill my tub," she murmured to herself as she climbed the stairs. The door to suite 12 was indeed unlocked. She swept into the parlor.
Now where the devil are my bags?
Nothing had been brought up yet. She muttered a small, unladylike oath about Noah Boswick, then stopped as she heard the sound of splashing water from the adjacent bathing room.
"Chris, put orange blossom bath salts in—ooh!" Lissa stood frozen in the doorway.
bathtub! Naked! His bronzed shoulders rippled with muscles, and one long-fingered hand rested against the pelt of black hair on his chest, holding a bar of soap. His hair was wet and he shook his head to clear the water from his eyes. She could see the faint outline of his body beneath the water—but not too clearly, thank God. Then he opened those mysterious eyes that she had wondered about earlier. They made her heart stop beating. Fringed by long black lashes, they were pure silver. His sensuous mouth curved in an intimate smile that heated her blood. Then he spoke and her heart raced wildly.
"Orange blossom isn't exactly my fragrance," he said drily. "You don't look like the hotel maid. Might I hope you're a present from my employer?"
Lissa was unable to tear her eyes from his gleaming wet skin. The tantalizing patterns of soap bubbles foaming on his shoulders fairly beckoned her hands to glide over the lean, hard muscles.
"What are you doing in my suite?" she finally managed to choke out.
"Your suite? I have the key." His voice was laced with laughter.
"Well, you certainly didn't use it!" she said indignantly as a flush scalded her cheeks. "The door was unlocked. This is the suite my father always reserves for me. I naturally assumed—"
"You naturally walked right in and opened the bathroom door when you heard me splashing," he interrupted ungraciously, still smiling. "Do you often spy on men in their baths?" Before she could sputter an answer, he started to rise out of the water, saying, "Sweetheart, hand me one of those towels as long as you're here."
She whirled and fled to the echoing sound of rich male laughter.
What a breathtaking little cat, he thought as he rinsed off and rubbed himself dry. Since it was unlikely that any other uninvited guest would be so lovely, Jess strolled into the lavishly appointed parlor, slipped the lock on the outer door, then returned to the steamy bathing room with his razor to complete his toilette. The uncharacteristic carelessness of the unlocked door niggled at the back of his mind.
As he pulled a clean shirt and pants from the armoire where the bellboy had hung them, Jess turned his thoughts to his fire-haired intruder. For certain no hotel maid. He had known that at a glance. Her tan linen traveling suit was far too expensively cut for her to be a mere servant, and her hands were too pale and soft to have endured any kind of manual labor. She might have been a very expensive whore, but he doubted it. The way she blushed gave away her lack of experience, but there was the matter of those hungry gold eyes. He chuckled. A she-wolf never eyed up a young maverick with any keener interest than the little redhead had shown while she studied him in that bathtub. She was ripe for the taking all right.
But before he accepted her unconscious invitation, he wanted to know who she was. A man of his background could get in a mountain of trouble over a rich white lady, even if she was the one who initiated the whole affair. Maybe after dinner he would head to the biggest saloon in town and ask around. A beauty with her unusual coloring would certainly be well-known in a territory with as few females as Wyoming.
He inspected his appearance in the mirror. The black homespun suit made him look like a preacher—or a politician. He considered wearing his .41- caliber double-action Colt Lightning, but decided against it. After all, this was the classiest hotel in Cheyenne and he was having dinner with one of the wealthiest cattlemen. There was an unwritten law on the plains about rich men. Seldom did anyone try any fireworks around them. They were too powerful, and the retribution for any disgruntled cowhand or outlaw was swift and terrible.
"Just in case the unlikely occurs," he muttered grimly and pulled open his gun case. He selected a single-action Colt pocket revolver and its specially-made shoulder holster. He strapped it on and shrugged into his suit coat, then glanced in the mirror one last time. He needed a haircut, but what the hell. It was not likely that Jacobson would bring his wife along, and even if he did, Jess was not interested in impressing Lissa Jacobson.
* * * *
Lissa inspected her appearance in the mirror. Her hair had turned out rather well. How heavenly to have a hairdresser here in Cheyenne! The woman had fashioned it in an elegant bouffant style with a heavy chignon at the crown and soft wispy curls framing her face. "Now all I need do is select a gown," she murmured, moving to her wardrobe, which overflowed with neatly pressed dresses in a rainbow of colors.
Dinner in a civilized dining room was quite an occasion after the endless winter months spent snowbound at the J Bar Ranch. The isolation had nearly driven her mad, with only her father and that hateful housekeeper for company. In desperation, she had often gone down to the bunkhouse to talk with Vinegar Joe, the crotchety old cook, and Moss, the ranch foreman. The young hands were not much company since they mostly tended to stare gape jawed at Marcus's beautiful daughter and shuffle around trying to please her. All the poor, homely illiterates did was add to her sense of frustration.
Marcus had sent his only daughter East for an education when her mother died. Her Aunt Edith and Uncle Phineas had taken in the frightened girl and lavished everything on her that a childless couple could give. She had spent brief summer vacations at J Bar, but her life had been in St. Louis.
When she was eighteen, Lissa had made her debut at the Veiled Prophet Ball, the most elegant social event of the aristocratic old city's season. Handsome, wealthy young men from all the best families had courted her. She had adored their attention, thinking that she would eventually marry one of them and settle down to be one of the social arbiters of the city, like Aunt Edith.
Then Marcus had swooped down and snatched her back here to this beastly wilderness the summer before last. His plans for his sole heir were quite different from hers. She was to marry an influential stockman who could run his empire. Together they would provide heirs to inherit the kingdom Marcus Jacobson had spent his life building.
As if that had not been bad enough, his first choice for the position was Lemuel Mathis, a well-to-do attorney in town and president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association. Lemuel was, she supposed in all fairness, a fine-looking man for one approaching the advanced age of forty. Unfortunately, he was a crashing bore.
All Lemuel was interested in was the cattle industry. Of course, Marcus and all the rest of their friends shared the same singleminded interest. At least Lemuel did attempt to court her in his own punctilious way.
But Lemuel Mathis was the farthest thing from her mind as she prepared for dinner. All she could think about was the possibility of encountering the gunman again. Just thinking of that swarthy, hawkish face with the mocking silver eyes made her heart pound. He was an arrogant beast, no doubt of that, a mixed blood, forbidden to all decent women. Her mouth went dry, and she felt queerly faint and flushed just thinking about him naked in that tub. She could still envision the soap bubbles coating his dark skin, the cunning patterns of hair on his chest and forearms, the lean, sinuous rippling of his muscles. How would it feel to touch that hard body and run her fingertips along the contours of his heated flesh?