Lucky lay in bed with his hands clasped behind his head, thinking one thought and one thought only.
He would've enjoyed sharing her supper, but he'd had to attend to business in the Bend. After leaving the ladies to their hen fest, he'd returned to the Red River Saloon to watch and wait. He'd downed a few pickled eggs and tossed back a couple of whiskeys. The saloon had been abuzz with Temperance Tempest and Lulu's bisected navel. It had also been filled with patrons wanting a look at the damage. Big Jim was going to come out ahead of the game thanks to Tempest and her hatchet. Life had a funny way of turning out the way you least expected it.
Tempest had been hell-bent-for-leather when he'd first seen her, but now she seemed contrite about the damage she'd caused to the bar. She was tough, but she was tender, too. He suspected that she was beautiful on the inside as well as the outside. She reminded him of Angel, the dime novelist he'd recently helped out of a tough spot and left in the capable hands of her loved one.
He should've stayed at the saloon longer, but he'd kept imagining Tempest fresh from a bath, smelling of violet water and wearing her lacy nightgown with nothing underneath except her warm, damp, bare flesh. He'd wanted to be near her, so he'd returned to his room.
Now she was on the other side of one thin wall. He could bust it open with his fist or kick it in with his boot. She'd be in bed. He intimately knew that bed with all its lumps, sags, and squeaks just like he wanted to intimately know Tempest's body with all its curves, valleys, and hidden treasures.
But he wasn't going to get involved with her. He didn't care how much his body craved her. He wouldn't comply even if she begged him. He was on a mission of too much importance, and time wasn't on his side. He only wished his rebel body would listen to reason.
In the dim light of a lamp, he looked down at the vertical shaft rising up between his legs, long, thick, and hard. He sighed. So far, his arguments hadn't impressed his prick, not one damn bit. He could try distraction, but he didn't hold out much hope for that, either.
Outside, the night was still young for the Bend's revelers, even though it'd be daylight in a few hours. He could hear tipsy warblers, drunken arguments, and horses racing up and down Main Street. He wondered if Big Jim had decided on a course of action to get Lulu returned to her pristine glory. He also wondered how many more men had poured healing libations of whiskey over her.
Lucky glanced down again. Nope. Those thoughts didn't do the trick, either. Once aroused, his cock had amazing staying power. If he was going to get any sleep, he needed to relieve the pressure. Not that the act wouldn't be pleasurable, but he knew it wouldn't dull his craving for Tempest.
He wanted to introduce her to “Courtly Love,” a term popularized by Gaston Paris in an article the previous year, but long practiced in New Orleans by the French who immigrated there. Older, experienced ladies had initiated him at an early age and he'd honed his skills over time. At twenty-nine, he was in his prime. He could be a gentle and passionate lover or he could be a rough and passionate lover. He knew how to give and receive pleasure. He'd like to share his knowledge with Tempest, but for now, she could only be a fantasy.
He lowered his hands from behind his head, grabbed a towel from the washstand, and dropped it on the bed. He gave his prick a firm squeeze, and wrapped his fist around the length.
He groaned, feeling his prick get hotter and harder at the thought of teaching Tempest the fine art of coupling, for surely a young lady like her was a virgin. He stroked up and down, imagining her squeezing him with her soft hands, her hot mouth, her inner muscles. He felt his juices gather and his cock tense. He pumped faster, wanting her, tasting her, smelling her. As he reached his crest, Tempest screamed next door.
And his fantasy converged with reality. As he imagined her crying out in ecstasy at his touch, he grabbed the towel and spurted to the sound of her voice echoing in the room.
Only in the aftermath of his release did he realize that her cry had been one of fear, not ecstasy.
“Lucky!” Tempest called, pounding on his door. “Help me.”
He tossed the towel in the washbowl, jumped off the bed, and pulled up his blue jeans. He hurried across the room and jerked open the door. She pushed past him into the room and turned back to face him.
She looked delectable, even better than his imagination. She wasn't wearing a robe. She looked as if she'd leaped straight out of bed, long hair loose and wild, nightgown sheer and clingy. Her high-arched feet were bare. He could see the shadows of her nipples, the fullness of her breasts, and the triangle between her thighs. If he'd been hard before, now he was like a rock. At least his blue jeans kept his prick corralled or he'd be out and ready for her.
Tempest took several deep breaths and swallowed hard, obviously determined to control her fear.
“What happened?” he asked, trying to get some blood to return to his brain so he could help.
“I need you to come next door and deal with that man in my room.”
“A man? Didn't you put a chair under the knob like I told you?”
“Yes. I don't how he got in there. Maybe there's a secret door or something.”
“In the Lone Star Hotel?”
“He's trying to raise the window. I think he's going to kill himself.” She walked back to the doorway. “Please hurry!”
“Are you sure you didn't wake up from a bad dream?”
She glared and straightened her back. “Trust me, I know the difference.”
He strapped on his gun-belt and made sure his six-shooter was snug in its holster, but he didn't take time to put on a shirt. If a man had gotten into her room and was causing trouble, there was no time to lose. If she'd had a bad dream, she needed to be reassured and maybe persuaded to sleep in his room where he could watch over her. Either way, he came out ahead, since he was getting to see her in dishabille.
Tempest led him into the hall where a wall lamp illuminated the area. She pointed at her room. “I'll wait out here.”
He drew his six-shooter, kicked the door all the way open, and then eased into her bedroom. He glanced around, but didn't see anybody. He checked under the bed. Again, nothing.
He holstered his .44 and walked back to her. “Bad dream.”
“No!” She pushed past him and stopped in the doorway. She pointed. “There! He's still trying to raise the window. He looks in terrible pain.”
Lucky felt a tingle of preternatural instinct alert him. He looked at the window again.
He glanced at her.
“Tempest,” he said gently. “I'll deal with this.”
“You'll save him? I'm scared to approach him. He's armed and looks so dangerous.”
He clasped her hand. She felt cold. “Come with me.”
“If you don't help him, I'll find another way.”
“You still see him at the window?”
“I want you to go to my room.”
“Maybe I should run downstairs and get Saul.”
“Not yet.” He squeezed her hand, hoping to transfer some warmth, and led her to his bedroom. “You'll be safe in there.”
“What about you? He looks almost out of his mind.”
“I'm armed, too.”
He nudged her into his room and closed the door. He stood there a moment, shaking his head, but there was no time to lose. He took the stairs down two at a time, walked across the lobby, and knocked on the door to Saul's suite. When he didn't get a quick response, he slammed open the door and strode into the bedroom.
Saul struggled to a sitting position, looking wildly about. “Trouble?”
“Question.” Lucky loomed over the bed. “Did a man some time ago jump out of the window in Tempest's room and kill himself?”
“Where did you hear that?” Saul leaned back against the headboard.
“Is it true?”
“I don't much like to talk about it because it's not good for business.”
“I won't spread it around.”
“Whoever told you, tell him to keep quiet.”
“Two years ago. It was right about this time of year. Sodbuster brought his wife to the Bend. She was in the family way and in a bad way. Doctor couldn't save her or the baby. Man couldn't stand the loss, I guess. He rented my best room and went out the window. Might've survived, but the way he fell, busted his neck.”
“I'm sorry for the man and his family. Life is tough out here.”
“And don't get easier.”
“Better get some more sleep.”
“Like I can now,” Saul grumbled, punching his pillow.
Lucky walked out and closed the door behind him. He stood in the lobby a moment, thinking. After Tempest's impact on the Bend, he should have known she was the one. It was just his damnable luck that she was everything he wanted and everything he couldn't have.
Now he had to make plans fast. He wished the ladies hadn't come to her rescue. He wanted her vulnerable and dependent on him. He didn't think that was her natural state, so he needed to find a way to induce it. Everybody had their price, as in their vulnerabilities, their needs, their desires, but not everyone knew it. That was his gift, or his curse. He could understand what lay in the hearts of others.
Whatever Tempest's price, he was willing to pay it. But she would have to give as good as she got.
Tempest paced Lucky's room, back and forth across the braided rug. She felt tired, concerned, and worried. She was used to handling her own problems, but she'd been so startled and frightened when she'd woken up to see an armed man in her bedroom that she'd instinctively run away. If Lucky hadn't been so close, she'd have gone downstairs to Saul. Now she wished she'd found a way to solve her own problem, but bare hands were no match for a six-shooter.
Still the man hadn't seemed interested in her. That was growing odder by the moment. Maybe he was trying to raise the window and shout at someone in the street rather than what she'd imagined while her mind was clouded by sleep. She could have misinterpreted the entire event.
But how had he gotten into her room in the first place? She'd had to move the chair to get into the hall. When she'd run out, he hadn't followed her. It was as if he couldn't see her.
A chill raced up her spine. Something was wrong, but she feared she was much too late to make a difference. For the man. And for herself.
She trudged over to the door and opened it. She walked back into the hall, and then into her room. She looked at the window. The man stood on the windowsill, hands braced on each side of his body. He crouched, ready to jump.
“Don't do it,” she said, walking toward him. “There's a better way.”
He hesitated, slowly turned his head, and looked at her.
She smiled gently, and then held out her hand. “Come here.”
“I've got to join my wife and baby.” Tears streaked down his sunburned face.
“Did they go on ahead of you?” She sat down in the rocking chair, so as not to alarm him.
“Can't you find them?”
“Why not look behind you?”
“I've got to go ahead to catch them.”
“Perhaps you need to go back to find them.”
He appeared puzzled, eyebrows coming together.
“They left first, didn't they?”
“If they stayed here, wouldn't they be behind you?”
After a moment, he nodded. He slowly, carefully turned his head until he looked toward the table. He audibly caught his breath. “Louisa, is that you?”
“Go to her.” Tempest blinked back tears at the sight of the woman in a calico dress holding a small, squirming bundle. “She's waiting for you.”
“That's our baby?” He stepped down from the window, walked over to the woman, and stood there, arms hanging limp at his sides. “Wife, is that truly you?”
“Embrace your family,” Tempest said. “It's time for you all to go home together.”
He put his arms around them. Soon their bodies grew misty and slowly dissipated until they were no more.
“Wherever you go, be happy.” Tempest wiped the tears from her cheeks and took a deep breath.
“You're a Spirit Rattler, aren't you?” Lucky said from the open doorway.
She froze, startled by his presence, not sure what he meant, and horrified that he might have witnessed what she'd done with the ghosts.
He shut the door behind him and walked into the room. “You're good, really good.”
“I don't know what you're talking about.”
“You see ghosts. Saul just told me the story of a man's suicide two years ago in this room. Wife and baby dead in childbirth.”
She took a deep breath to slow her racing heart. She couldn't let him know about her affliction. Only bad things came to her when people knew. “I apologize for waking you earlier. You're right. I had a bad dream and thought I saw a man in my room. Of course, I didn't.”
“And you were just now talking to yourself?”
“You don't have to pretend for me.” He stalked over to her. “As it happens, I'm in need of a Spirit Rattler.”
“I have no idea what that is.”
“Maybe you can lie to yourself and others, but you can't lie to me. I don't know what you call your gift, but in my world, you're called a Spirit Rattler.”
She felt sick to her stomach. She couldn't let this stranger get in her way. She had female allies now. She didn't need him, or any man. The Ladies Benevolent Society would help her get to Indian Territory.
She watched him come closer till he towered over her. She wished she'd stood up as soon as he'd entered her room so that she was in a stronger position, but she'd been weak from the encounter. He appeared powerful and passionate. With no shirt, she could see the hard muscles, the taut nipples, and the smooth, almost hairless skin of his chest. Oddly enough, he had a black tattoo in the shape of a solar cross, an equal-limbed cross set in a circle, over his heart. She wondered why and what it meant. He balanced easily on the balls of his feet, as if ready for battle or to overwhelm her. He appeared more warrior than gentleman.
She caught his scent, and it exacerbated her need. She wanted to lower her nightgown so she could press her bare breasts against his bare chest. Flesh to flesh. Passion to passion. Female to male. As if a flower bud had unfurled into blossom, she felt wet heat flow between her thighs. She wanted him to stop the ache, the desire, the need, but she couldn't give in to her lust. She knew it was a passing fancy brought on by her heightened senses after a ghostly encounter. She'd been subject to it, as she had been to seeing ghosts, since turning from girl to woman at fourteen, but resisting her impulses came harder with each passing year.
Carefully, she placed her hands, palms down, on her thighs, and took a deep breath. “All is well here. I prefer for you to leave my room now.”
He chuckled, a sensual sound, and then pulled a chair away from the table, turned it around, and sat down with his arms across the back. “We're going to have a little talk.”
“No. You're going to leave my room.”
“How long have you been seeing ghosts? Since menarche?”
“Thank you for your earlier help. I'm no longer in need of your services, so you may leave.”
“Did you get any formal training, or are you a natural?”
“You saw them all, didn't you? Husband, wife, baby?”
“I have no idea what you're talking about.”
“Here's the big question. Do they talk to you? Can you communicate with them?” He drummed his fingertips on the back of the chair. “From what I heard, sounds like that's the case. If it is, you're rarer than hen's teeth.”
“You've overstayed your welcome.”
“Do you have any idea how much I need you . . . a Spirit Rattler?” He leaned forward. “I won't beat about the bush. Tell me what you want for your help and you've got it.”
She felt her breath catch in her throat, hardly able to believe her ears. She was caught between wanting to believe he appreciated her affliction and fear that he simply wanted to hurt her with the truth.
She didn't answer right away. She'd learned the art of holding her tongue. She couldn't remember a time when she didn't see and talk with ghosts. But as she'd grown up, her friends had started to treat her as if she were odd and had refused to play with her. Elmira and Lamira, her loving grandmother and great-aunt, had explained that sometimes members of their family saw what others did not. They had comforted her, listened to her tales of long ago or more recent times that she heard from ghosts, and supported her desire to help the ghosts heal and move on. Over time, she'd found that ghosts were her friends when many others rejected her for being different.
“I don't have time for games.” His amber gaze turned dark.
“I don't, either.” She frowned, pushing past her weakness in wanting a man like Lucky to accept her. “For your information, you're not the only person in the world who has needs and lacks time to be bothered with strangers.”
He smiled, dimple appearing and disappearing. “You have needs? What kind? Whatever you need, name it.”
“I'm not going to discuss anything with you.”
He stood up abruptly, paced across the room, and then came back to tower over her. “I hadn't wanted to do this, but you're giving me no choice.” He reached down, lifted her to her feet, selected her left hand, and pressed her palm against the solar cross over his heart.
For a moment she struggled to get free, but then she felt lethargic, even woozy, and leaned against him for support. “Let me go,” she mumbled, feeling her thoughts whirl in chaos.
“You're a Spirit Rattler, aren't you?”
“I have an affliction.” She felt the words drawn from her, as if she'd needed to say them for a long time.
“Nobody wants or likes a person who sees things that aren't there.” She felt relieved to say those words, too.
“Idiots!” He placed a gentle kiss to her forehead. “You've been punished or shunned for your gift?”
“Curse, you mean.”
“Never again.” He pressed her hand hard against his chest. “I'll treasure you for the rare gift you are.”
“No. I'll prove it to you.” He hesitated, and then tilted back her chin with one hand so he could look into her eyes. “Tell me true, do you see and communicate with ghosts?”
She hesitated, and then nodded, feeling as if she'd released a great weight. But she also felt tired, so very tired.
She felt him gently move her hand from his heart to his shoulder, and then draw her against the length of him. She felt his shaft press against her belly. He wanted her, and she shuddered with renewed desire. She'd been alone too long, in need too long, rejected too long, so she was vulnerable, knew it, but couldn't stop thrusting her fingers deep into his thick hair, pressing her breasts against his chest, and then pushing against his hardness.
He inhaled sharply before he eased her away. He stepped back, breathing fast. “I was out of line. That's not in the cards. I need you as a Spirit Rattler. I won't do anything that might interfere with your ability.”
“How did you make me answer you?”
“You have your gift. I have mine.”
“I want to know more.”
“Not now. We need to get on the road.”
“You expect me to simply leave town with you?”
“Yes. I'll pay you for your help, but I must leave for Indian Territory in the morning.”
“Got anything against it?”
“Oh, no. By pay, do you mean money?”
“Could it be sent to someone?”
She felt a great relief wash over her. Maybe she'd misjudged his whiskey-colored eyes, or maybe expediency turned sinner to saint. Either way, for the first time in her life, her affliction might actually be an ability.
“You'll do it?”
She smiled. “You've got yourself a Spirit Rattler.”