Authors: Shirl Henke
A small cynical smile barely curved his mouth. "You're used to men making special efforts for you, aren't you?"
"You really are trying to get my back up. Why, Jesse Robbins?" Her eyes gleamed with challenge. No man was this insufferable to the boss's daughter unless he felt something.
He finally turned and looked her in the eye. "You've really gone out of your way to attract my attention. I might ask you the same question, but I won't. I already know the answer." His direct silvery glare brought a flush to her cheeks. He cursed beneath his breath and turned away before his eyes trespassed lower, following the course of that flush down her neck to the open collar of her shirt, where softly rounded breasts strained against the silky fabric.
"You have a very high opinion of yourself," she retorted. "As to that encounter in the hotel—what happened was simply a mistake. You were in my suite."
"So you walked right in and decided to stay and see what you could see." One eyebrow arched as he gave her a sidelong glance.
"You really are insufferable, but you needn't think you're so special." Lissa decided that two could play the game of brazen insults. "Yes, I was curious. I've never seen a naked man before. It was a bit disappointing," she added with a forced sigh.
"That's only because you can't make comparisons that would lead you to appreciate my—ah, imposing stature," he said drily, grudgingly admiring her grit. The little devil was persistent and cheeky—and altogether too beautiful.
"You were only my first naked man. Who says I won't make comparisons?" she replied with a flip of her reins as she pulled her gelding away to hide her chagrin at having been bested in the ribald exchange. Riding back to Rob and Butch, she complained, "I'm ready to break for some food and rest. At this rate, we'll ride the horses lame."
Jess watched her confer with the men, then pull in and dismount. He debated hauling her back up on her horse and making them all ride another hour but decided against it. That kind of physical attention was just what she was trying to get him to give her. He was damned if he would play her game.
They built a fire and made some beans and coffee. Jess watched the men all vying with each other to wait on her. The young pups he could understand, but even the crusty old cowpunchers treated her like royalty. Of course, out here, any woman, young or old, pretty or plain, was prized. To be the only child and heir of a cattle baron like Marcus Jacobson, not to mention startlingly beautiful, was to be full-fledged royalty in Wyoming.
He sat nursing a cup of scalding black coffee and studied her covertly. She had made a special point of ignoring him since they stopped to eat. What was that devious little mind of hers up to?
Lissa waited until Jess finally went to check on his stallion. Then she walked quickly to her horse. She looked about to be certain no one was watching, then began to saw on the cinch strap with her small pocketknife until it was almost cut through. "That should do it," she murmured with a smile.
Shortly thereafter they broke camp and mounted up. Lissa rode very carefully until she could catch up to Jess, who, as usual, was riding point. "You act like you expect rustlers to come sweeping down on us, shooting."
"That's a possibility." He kept his eyes fixed on the horizon.
"Do you believe we're really in danger?" she asked, edging closer as she felt the saddle begin to slide.
Before Jess could reply, Lissa let out a cry and reached out to him. He turned just in time to see her saddle sliding around the gelding's side. Her hands clawed at his arm and he quickly slid his hands around her waist and lifted her against him as she kicked free of her horse. The gelding bucked a few times as the slipped saddle hung at an uncomfortable angle on its side, then began to graze, ignoring the commotion as the men raced up to Jess and Lissa.
She held tightly to him with her arms twined around his neck. His body was hard and lean, just as it had been in her fantasy. And his fingers felt like steel bands, holding her tightly against him. She pressed her breasts against his chest and felt him stiffen. He smelled of shaving soap with a faint hint of tobacco and some other unidentifiable scent.
She ran her fingers across his beard-stubbled jaw. "Your beard is awfully heavy. I thought men with Indian blood didn't have beards."
He reined in with an oath while she clung to him tight as a tick. His pants were getting tight, too, and the last thing on earth he wanted was to let her know how she really affected him. Jess peeled her away from his body and dropped her on the ground. "You could've broken your neck with that damn fool stunt!" he said as he dismounted and stalked back to where her horse stood in the waving grass.
"Stunt! You say I could've been killed and still call it a stunt!"
He picked up the cut cinch strap and held it out, glaring at her. "Stunt," he echoed flatly.
"Well, since you have the biggest horse—and since you bathe regularly—I guess you'll have to carry me to the J Bar," she said cheerfully, ignoring his scowl and her own pounding heart.
The other men came tearing up and leaped from their horses.
"Miz Lissa, you all right?" Rob asked breathlessly.
"Gal, you scared more years off'n me than the blizzard of '76!" Luke Deevers said in his sharp Tennessee twang.
"I'm all right. One of the cinches just broke. Nothing to get excited about. Mr. Robbins saved me from taking a spill."
"Oh, you might just take a spill yet, Princess," Jess said in a silky voice that only she could hear.
"A durn good thing yer daddy believes in good old Denver saddles with double rigging, else yew cudda been throwed," Deevers said, noticing the cut leather but saying nothing.
"Can you repair it?" Jess asked the old man.
Deevers spit a shot of tobacco juice like a Union Pacific engine expelling steam, then replied, "Reckon I kin sew 'er up good 'nough fer a leetle bitty gal like Miz Lissa to ride it home."
"Coward," she whispered to Jess, then turned and stalked away.
Repairing the saddle took little time and they were soon on their way again. Lissa rode with Rob Ostler and Matt Helmer, forcing laughter at their outrageous cowboy humor while she stole furtive glances at Jess, still the solitary point rider.
"'N this here English feller starts talkin 'bout goin' ta Paree. Then old Deevers, he says, 'I been ta Paree.' 'You been to Paree, France?' the English dude asks. 'How'd you get to Paree?' 'Went with a herd of beeves,' old Deevers says. 'How in hell'— beggin' yer pardon, Miz Lissa, but old Deevers, he's powerful profane," he added as an aside to her. She nodded with a smile and he reddened, then continued. "Wal, the English feller he kindy gets his back up 'n asks, 'How'd you git across the ocean with a herd of beeves?' 'Didn't cross no ocean,' says Luke, 'trailed them critters around the Divide!'"
Everyone around them burst into laughter, even Pappy Deevers, who had heard the story told on him for years.
"Tell us about the time you tangled with that lantern-jawed bronc at the Triple E," Matt urged Rob.
With a shy look at Lissa, Rob warmed to his subject with the zeal of a natural-born storyteller. "Wal, I climbed aboard thet critter with a belly full of butterflies, I wanna tell yew." Lissa grew restive, and was only half listening to the young wrangler's tale of the high-bucking bronc. She was glad when he concluded, "I ain't never goin ta ride no broncs agin."
As everyone laughed, Ostler continued to pledge that his bronc-busting days were over forever. Then an impulse born of boredom and frustration seized Lissa and she asked, "You don't bust horses, but how about racing yours? Seems to me I recall beating you last summer. Bet I can do it again."
"Aw, Miz Lissa, I let you win that time."
A chorus of guffaws drowned out the young cowhand's protests until he threw up his hands. "All right, I'll race. Where do you want to—"
"Right here! I'll race you to that big rock up ahead," Lissa said as she dug her heels into her gelding. The startled horse took off at a gallop with a whooping Ostler close behind her, his hat waving wildly up and down as he urged his rangy buckskin in pursuit of her big gray.
From his vantage point on the rise, Jess watched the two young fools head toward the sharply jutting promontory in the center of the valley floor. Then his eyes swept across the terrain in front of them. Winter snows had been heavy, followed by spring rains. The creeks in the valley had overflowed their banks. In marshy, low-lying areas, the ground was treacherous. Lissa, pulling well ahead of Rob Ostler, was heading for a brushy, overgrown area that could be dangerous.
Cursing, Jess kicked Blaze into a gallop and headed after the reckless girl. By the time he came within fifty yards of her. Ostler was calling out for her to stop as he reined in his mount and turned it away from the creek. Ignoring him, she jumped the shallow, swiftly running stream and plunged ahead until the gray's legs sank quickly into the treacherous mire, throwing her. She, too, began to sink.
"Quicksand!" Ostler yelled as he began to uncoil his lariat, sliding the loop wide.
Jess, too, reached for his ketch rope as Lissa flailed in the quagmire, sinking deeper with every desperate move she made.
"You have a stronger reata than I do—pull out the gray. I'll get the girl," Jess commanded.
The young hand tossed his heavy grass rope around the gray's neck and proceeded to haul him out of the quicksand. Jess, with his lighter Mexican reata of braided rawhide, quickly dropped the loop around Lissa.
"Put it under your arms and hold on to it," he shouted.
She obeyed him and he pulled her free. When he dismounted, she was sprawled on all fours on the stream bank, gasping for breath and covered with slimy sand.
Lissa saw his fancy black boots stop in front of her. She sat back on her haunches and looked up at him. "You know how to do anything but scowl?" she asked, raising one grimy hand to him.
He pulled her up roughly. "You haven't given me any reason not to scowl. That was the dumbest damned thing I've seen since my commander tried to negotiate with a Tuareg chieftain."
She began to brush off the excess debris with her hands. "What's a Tuareg? An Indian? Were you in the army?"
Jess ignored the questions as his eyes swept over her soaked body. Damnation, even covered with muck she was beautiful. Every curve of her breasts and hips was revealed by the ooze-plastered clothes. "You're a mess and you reek like a dead cow rotting in the sun."
"I have clean clothes in my pack," she muttered. "Just give me a few minutes to scrub off in the creek and change."
"Ten minutes or I'll tie you to one of the pack- horses," Jess threatened as the rest of the men rode up with the pack animals.
Luke, Matt, and Festus were a great deal more concerned over her safety than was the hateful gunman. She fought the childish urge to stick out her tongue at his retreating back. Why was it that everything she did around Jesse Robbins seemed to backfire on her, making her look like a spoiled child? Couldn't anything go right? She stomped over to her luggage.
As she was unfastening the straps of her portmanteau, a thought occurred to her. We'll just see, Jesse Robbins, what you do about this! A slow smile spread across her face as she seized a carefully chosen change of clothes from the pack and headed for a copse of cottonwoods that sheltered the creek.
Barely within the time allotted, she emerged from the trees, dressed in a frilly white blouse and green silk skirt, which was cut with narrow paneled gores, completely unsuitable for riding. She walked briskly up to where Jess was talking to Luke Deevers. "I'm ready," she said sweetly.
He turned and his eyes narrowed as they swept down her figure. "How in the hell do you plan to ride in that regalia?"
She shrugged ingenuously and grinned at him. "This is the only thing I brought—other than two low-cut evening gowns." That was not strictly the truth, but the small oversight suited her purpose. "I guess I'll just have to ride on the front of your
saddle . . ." She watched his whole body stiffen. He looked as if he were going to shake her until her teeth rattled.
"You brassy little bitch," he muttered low beneath his breath. Jess turned and gave the command to mount up. Then he swung onto his big stallion and reached down for her, lifting her across the saddle. She put her arms around his waist and her breasts pressed intimately against his chest. Her hips wriggled against his inner thighs until he reached down with steely fingers and held her still.
"Ouch, that hurts. You're pinching me."
"Lady, that's nothing compared to what you're doing to me," he said darkly. "Is that what you've been wanting to hear? Well, now you've heard it, so shut up and sit still. I'm in no mood for conversation."