Authors: Shirl Henke
Lissa gave herself a mental shake and turned her attention to the gowns. They were cramped in this smaller room, which had fewer armoires and chests for her extensive wardrobe. Damn his insolence for taking her suite! She had been forced to settle for a smaller room at the end of the hall.
She could not keep her wayward thoughts from trespassing to Jesse Robbins. There had been a great deal of trouble here lately with cattle and horses being stolen. She knew that her father and several of the other big ranchers like Cyrus Evers had been conferring about how to solve the problem. Could Papa be the one who hired Robbins?
Just thinking about it made her smile wickedly. If so, the presumptuous devil was in for quite a rude awakening. He would be Marcus's employee, and she would be the boss's daughter. Now that might make him a bit more polite!
Just then a rap sounded at the door, and her father's voice called out, "Are you there, Princess?"
"Come in, Papa. I was deciding which gown to wear for dinner tonight. I thought the aqua, but perhaps the gold . .."
Marcus turned his hat in his hands, fingering the leather headband nervously. "Princess, I know how you've been looking forward to dinner here in Cheyenne, but something has come up—"
"You promised, Papa! What could be more important? I'll wait if you have to have some boring old meeting over at the Association."
"I'm afraid that won't be possible, Lissa," he said placatingly.
"But I just had my hair done, and the hotel maid pressed all my gowns in a special rush...." she wheedled.
His jaw was set in that stubborn way that she knew meant he would not be moved. Lissa recognized it because she too clenched her jaw the same way on frequent occasions.
"I'm sorry, Princess. I'm going to have to have a business dinner. A man I just hired has arrived a day early, and Lemuel and I need to discuss vital J Bar affairs with him."
Her heart skipped a beat.
"I don't see why I can't sit in. I promise to keep quiet and let you talk."
His blue eyes were glacial as he replied, "This man is not the sort that a lady would ever be seen socially with. He's a half-breed stock detective from Texas."
So it was he. "Oh, poo! What difference does that make to me? I only want to dress up and have an elegant meal in a civilized place." She knew Marcus shared the Westerner's prejudices about good women associating with Indians or gunmen—and stock detectives were by definition gunmen. But the whole thing was narrow-minded and silly. She had half a mind to say so, but he gave her no opportunity.
"I know you've spent your formative years away from here, and for that reason I'll ignore that foolish remark," he said sternly. "I promise to take you to dinner tomorrow night. Now be a good girl and order whatever you want sent up from the hotel dining room for tonight." He walked over to her and placed a kiss on her forehead, then started for the door. He paused midway and said, with a twinkle softening his cold blue eyes, "Oh, Princess, your hair does look grand. Have the hairdresser come again tomorrow—and wear the gold dress."
After her father left, Lissa began to pace and scheme. If Lemuel was going to be present, too, then she could say she was so eager to see him that she just couldn't wait. Papa would be furious, but since he had been pushing Mathis at her for over a year, he could not stay mad. And he would never guess that her real motive for coming to the dining room was the silver-eyed gunman.
Lissa could not wait to see Jesse Robbins's face when she made her grand entrance and was introduced as Marcus Jacobson's daughter. "I bet he swallows his tongue!"
Jess waited in the lobby of the hotel, which was adjacent to the fancy dining room. The aroma of rich coffee and fresh-baked bread perfumed the air. His stomach let out a low grumble, and he realized that he had not eaten since a hasty breakfast of bacon and beans on the trail at daybreak.
Marcus Jacobson and three companions strolled into the hotel, laughing and talking jovially.
They must've had a drink at their club
. He imagined them inviting him to enter that hallowed sanctuary.
Hell would freeze over first
As they approached, he studied the men with Jacobson. One of them wore expensive boots with a dress suit that was stiff and ill-fitting. He had a weathered face, creased as old buckskin and blasted by the elements. The second fellow was better dressed, with well-barbered hair and Celtic features. He, too, wore boots. The two of them were like old Marcus, no mistaking their hard-eyed toughness.
The third fellow had the look of a townsman. His clothes were well-tailored and he moved as if at ease in a fancy shirt and buttoned suit coat. He wore highly polished shoes and gold jewelry. Jess studied his face, which was flat and broad, with pale colorless eyes beneath sandy eyebrows. Quick eyes, missing nothing. He was younger than the others but no kid by any means. His thick sandy hair was liberally thatched with gray, and his hairline receded slightly.
"Good evening, Mr. Robbins," Marcus said, as jovial as one of his saturnine disposition could be.
Yeah, they had a drink or two.
Aloud, Jesse returned the greetings when Jacobson introduced his companions.
"This is Cyrus Evers. Jamie MacFerson. Lemuel Mathis. Gentlemen, Jesse Robbins." Both of the older cattlemen returned Jess's keen inspection, measuring him with the shrewd gaze of men whose survival skills were hard won in this harsh wilderness.
As Jess shook hands with Mathis, he felt the soft skin of a man unused to physical labor. "You aren't a stockman, Mr. Mathis."
Lemuel Mathis's eyes narrowed for an instant as he withdrew his hand. Then he smiled. "No, but I'm president of the Stock Growers Association and vitally interested in protecting and promoting the cattle industry in our territory."
"Lemuel is modest. He'll be one of the biggest ranchers in Wyoming in a year or two when he marries my daughter," Jacobson replied.
"Now, Marcus, the lady hasn't done me the honor of saying yes yet," Mathis protested.
"Just a matter of time. She'll come around," Marcus said with self-assurance.
As they walked into the dining room, Jess could feel curious eyes on him, hear speculative whispers. He had grown used to it over the years.
How many men has he killed? Does he notch his gun? How much is he paid to shoot a man?
People were vultures, feeding their own prurient curiosity through him.
A prim, punctilious waiter, probably a first cousin to the desk clerk, showed them to a table in the rear of the room. It was situated privately so no one would overhear their conversation. No doubt Jacobson reserved it regularly.
Just as they were pulling out chairs to be seated, a familiar voice called out. There you are, Papa! I declare, I almost couldn't find you all hidden away in that corner."
The beautiful redhead, fetchingly dressed in a topaz silk gown, wended her way across the crowded dining room toward them. She did not see Jess, who was standing behind the latticed partition wall. Jacobson stiffened but said nothing as she fluttered up to them, wreathed in smiles. So Lissa was old Marcus's daughter, not his wife! Jess cursed his luck. Just what he needed, some spoiled little chit getting her dander up because of the incident in his room. Still he could not help but wonder how she would react when she saw him. He knew her pa was furious that she had interrupted their dinner, but the old man said nothing as she effusively greeted the other ranchers and Mathis.
"Why, Cy Evers, Cridellia said you looked splendid in that new suit and she didn't exaggerate one bit. Mr. MacFerson, I've missed you since roundup last fall."
"How good it is to see you again, Lissa," Mathis said, gallantly bowing over her proffered hand.
"Why, thank you . . ." Her voice faltered as Jess stepped out of the shadows and his eyes met hers. She felt her heart accelerate like a runaway train when his smile mocked her.
"Lissa, this is Jesse Robbins. He's a stock detective," her father said tightly, his eyes promising retribution.
Her smile was dazzling as she inclined her head, quickly recovering her poise. What was it about the man that wrecked her composure every time he smiled at her? "A pleasure, Mr. Robbins. I trust the hotel accommodations are to your liking?" she asked innocently.
"Yes, ma'am. The rooms are very luxurious," he replied. The little flirt was playing with him!
"I especially enjoy the luxury of the bathing facilities." She smiled as his face darkened.
"Lissa, I don't think—"
"Are you gentlemen going to stand around and let a lady perish of hunger?" she said, interrupting her father's careful remonstrance.
Mathis rushed to pull out a chair. "Please, do have a seat, Lissa," he said in a stiffly formal voice, ushering her pointedly away from the gunman and placing her at his side.
Cy Evers cleared his throat nervously and took the chair on her other side. "And how have you been these past months?"
"Now that winter is finally over, I'm splendid, thank you."
Jess watched Lissa work her wiles. She was obviously used to getting her way. Surrounded by her little court of admirers, she quickly recovered her courage and delighted in baiting him. Obviously, she would never tell her father about barging in on him mother-naked in a bathtub. He smiled grimly to himself as he listened to them discuss the long northern winters and the coming of spring.
"I've been so anxious for the snow to melt," Lissa said, sipping from her glass of sherry daintily.
"Eager for the smell of orange blossoms?" Jess asked in a low voice.
She choked on her wine, then quickly recovered and replied, "Why no, Mr. Robbins. There are no orange blossoms in Wyoming, but I carry the fragrance with me all year long." Her big gold eyes were fathomless as she met his gaze with an innocent expression on her face.
Marcus watched the exchange between his daughter and the half-breed with growing unease. What the devil was going on? Then he glanced at Lemuel, and a slow smile spread across his face. The spunky little filly was making him jealous! Lissa always wanted Lem to be more exciting and attentive. Well, this was certainly putting a burr under his blanket. The idea that she would find the half-breed attractive never occurred to him.
"The winters in Cheyenne are much more hospitable than out in the basin. I think you would find life in the city much to your liking, Lissa," Mathis put in smoothly.
Lissa rewarded him with a wide smile. "Perhaps I would, Lemuel."
"I've certainly missed you. It's been a long time since your birthday celebration," Mathis said.
"That was a princely affair," MacFerson added, rolling his r's in a thick Scots burr.
Lissa turned to Jess. "My father throws a big party every spring in honor of my birthday. He's a very generous man who gives wonderful presents. Don't you, Papa?" She turned to Marcus but watched Jess scowl from the corner of her eye.
"Only what you deserve, my dear," Jacobson said indulgently.
The waiter appeared to take their orders before she could make a riposte.
As their food was served, Lissa sipped her sherry and flirted with Mathis, who fairly fawned over her, basking in the unexpected attention.
Jess realized that riding a sunfishing bronc would be safer than continuing these parlor games with Lissa Jacobson. Best to get down to business. "Before you tell me about the situation at your ranch, Mr. Jacobson, there is one thing I have to make clear. I'm not Tom Horn. I don't shoot nesters and I don't dynamite sheep. You have any problems with sheepmen or squatters, you'll have to settle them some other way."
Cy Evers chortled and slapped his thigh. "Blanton said you was plain-speaking with lots of nerve."
"We have rustler troubles, Robbins, nothing else that we can't handle ourselves," Marcus said levelly.
Jess nodded. "Good. Horses or cattle?"
"Mostly beeves. Last month I lost nearly five hundred head. Cy here lost two hundred."
"And I lost one hundred fifty," MacFerson said, chomping on his piece of apple pie as if it were going to get away from him.
Jess whistled low. "Seems as if you're the main target, Jacobson. Any idea why?" Jess studied the tough old man's unyielding expression as he sipped his coffee.
"I've posted as many men as either Cy or Jamie, but my herds are more spread out."
"And there is more of em," Evers interjected.
Jacobson shrugged. "I'm the biggest stockman in southeastern Wyoming. But I can't sustain these losses. If rustlers took five hundred head when the snow wasn't even off the ground, by the time spring roundup is done I can't even imagine how many head I could lose."