Lucky could've kicked himself. First, he'd said ladylove, and then he might as well have said he wanted to seduce her. Of course, he did, but she didn't need to know it and get ideas.
She gave him a sidelong look with her beautiful violet eyes, and pursed her plump lips.
“If you think you can toy with me and get your way like you do with other men, think again. I need you for one thing and one thing only.” Big words from a man who was about to lie down and roll over, but maybe somebody would believe him.
She lifted her shoulders in an elegant shrug. “I bet there are a lot of ladies who'd like to see more of you, at least in a painting.”
A lot of ladies
seen plenty of him, but she didn't need to know it.
“I bet Mama Lou'd be happy to place a painting of you above her pastry shelf. I'm thinking you could be reclining on a bearskin rug.”
She cocked her head to one side, considering him. “Maybe you could be holding your hat.”
He laughed, imagining the strategic placement of his hat. “I don't think what you've got in mind belongs in a cafÃ©.”
“Where'd you hear that word?”
She shrugged again. “If the Bend wants a painting of me, why not get one of you, too?” Mischief danced in her eyes.
“Men are paying for it, for one thing.” Lustful images of her flitted across his mind. “What about one of us together?” He'd pay the artist plenty for those types of sketches. He wouldn't be the only one, either. In New Orleans, there'd be a bidding war. With her need for money, he'd better never let her know. But once the job was done and the artist found, he just might consider the possibilities.
“The two of us? That'd be highly inappropriate and you know it.”
“That's only the lady in you talking. What about the jezebel?”
“Jezebel?” She put a hand over her heart while her eyes widened in surprise. “Are you suggesting we pose in theâ”
He watched her blush a tantalizing shade of pink. He'd like to follow that blush down to the rosy tips of her breasts. He could almost taste the sweetness and feel the heat on his tongue. He'd torment her sensitive flesh until she writhed and begged him to go lower to the scorching heart of her.
“You're teasing me because you think I'm just an innocent little lady, aren't you?”
“You set a man to thinking thoughts best left in the dark.”
“I bet you set free a few women's thoughts, too.”
He chuckled, and she joined his laughter. “If you're trying to distract me,” he said, “you're doing a fine job.”
Despite their banter, he felt male satisfaction that she'd admitted she liked his looks and would like to see more. It had a powerful effect on his cock. Now he wanted to prove that she was more jezebel than lady, but he had more important matters that demanded his attention.
A sound downstairs reminded him that they were standing in the hall. Somebody could walk up the stairs at any time. “Best get our minds on business. We need to leave soon.”
“I'm ready.” She turned away from him.
“I'll pack my saddlebags, and then we can be on our way.” He realized that she'd withdrawn, maybe put up barriers after their banter. He wanted to reach out to her, but perhaps it was for the best. He led them where it was best they didn't go.
He ushered her into his room, grabbed his saddlebags, and tossed in the few things he'd taken out. He shrugged into his leather vest, pulled his gold watch from a front pocket where it was attached by a short chain to a button for security. He checked the time. Eight o'clock. He glanced out the window. Sunny morning in early September. It'd still be hot during the day, but cooler at night.
“That's a nice watch,” she said. “It looks like a family piece.”
He nodded. “Like your chatelaine?”
“Yes. I borrowed it from my grandmother.”
“I see pieces like these more in the South.”
“It could be part of the heritage.”
“And money. Folks come out here to make their fortune, not inherit it.”
“Guess I'll need to buy myself something pretty, so I can hand it down in my family.”
He thought how good she'd look in pricey baubles. “I'll get you something.”
“You're already paying me.”
“It ought to be something to go with that red dress.”
“I'm never going to hear the last of that, am I?”
He put on his beige Stetson, glanced around to make sure he hadn't left anything behind, and then walked over to the door. “Ready to go?”
“That's all you're taking?”
“I'm traveling light. You'll need to do the same.”
She nodded, looking about the area, as if reluctant to leave. “This is not so different from my room.”
“No table and chairs.” He chuckled as a new thought struck him. “No telling what Saul will add to the Temperance Tempest Room.”
“None of this seems real.”
“It's happened fast.”
He looked at her, trying to see her as if for the first time. “You're beautiful. You're a lady. And there's innocence about you. These are rare qualities out here where land and life ages you fast. Add an independent woman who dares invade male domains and you've got Temperance Tempest.”
“It's fantasy. None of those qualities are me. I'm just a woman past her prime with a major affliction that's caused a lot of problems.”
He crossed the room in two strides and wrapped her in his arms. He held her tight, molding her to the length of him. He felt her tremble, but didn't know if it was from anger, despair, or passion. He wanted her like he'd never wanted another woman. He wanted to heal her, teach her, love her till she believed in herself. But that wasn't his mission, not right now.
Stepping back, he lifted her chin with his fingertips, not daring to touch more or risk losing control. “In time, you'll learn that you
the fantasy, not the reality that you've come to believe.”
She shook her head, smiling slightly. “I do think you'd say about anything to get me to work for you.”
He started to protest, but she held up her hand.
“Not that I don't appreciate your lovely words, but there's no need. I'm committed. Let's go pick up supplies and be on our way.”
He couldn't argue with her reality, but he had every intention of changing it. He put his saddlebags over one shoulder and held out his elbow. “Allow me to escort you to Adler Emporium.”
She clasped his arm. “Lead onward, kind sir.”
Tempest preceded Lucky into Ludmila's dry goods store, a deep space with glass cases and shelves of merchandise. Colors, shapes, and scents filled her senses. In one corner, two chairs were positioned on either side of a checkerboard set on top of a wooden pickle barrel. She wanted to explore every nook and cranny of the fascinating store, but she had to keep her mind on essentials.
Ludmila called as she walked down the center aisle, wiping her hands on the white apron over her blue calico dress.
“Hello,” Tempest said. “Your store is wonderful. I'd like to stay here all day.”
“We're in a hurry.” Lucky pointed toward the display of saddlebags. “She needs one of those.”
Ludmila chuckled. “Men are always in a hurry when they step inside a dry goods store.”
“Unlike a saloon,” Tempest said.
“Ladies, you need to understand that men are simple beings with simple tastes.” He gestured around the store. “I doubt we'd know what to do with most of this stuff.”
Ludmila winked at Tempest. “Perhaps somebody here would be interested in the new Smith & Wesson Model 4 revolver, .32 cartridge, double-action, nine-shot, central fire, automatic cartridge ejector, twelve and a half ounces, three-inch barrel, blue plated, rubber stock for twelve dollars and fifty cents. If you prefer ivory stock, fourteen fifty. One hundred cartridges, a dollar fifty.”
“Let me see it,” Lucky said eagerly. “Not that I'd change my S&W Model 3. I like the stopping power of a .44 and the fact that I can use the same cartridges in my rifle.”
“Thought I might be able to interest you in something simple,” Ludmila said with a twinkle in her eyes.
“Don't gloat,” Lucky grumbled as he headed for the firearm section. “You made your point.”
Tempest focused on Ludmila. “We're going to Indian Territory today.”
“We heard about your agreement with Big Jim.” Ludmila glanced at Lucky, and then back. “You will be safe?”
That is why I mentioned the revolver. It is small and lightweight, but well-made and dependable. I suggest you do not venture across the Red River without a firearm of your own.”
“I'll be with Lucky.”
“You never know what may happen. You might get separated or he might become incapacitated. Plus, he is a stranger. If the need arises, women must be able to take care of themselves.”
Tempest felt a chill race up her spine. She hadn't considered the danger in life-and-death terms. Folks in Delaware Bend knew how to live on a knife's edge and didn't play games. She looked more closely at Ludmila, wondering how she had come to be on her own with a store in a rough town like the Bend. When Ludmila pushed a strand of hair back into her neat chignon, Tempest noticed a jagged scar across the palm of her right hand. Maybe something, or someone, had driven her into her present life.
“Do you not agree?” Ludmila asked.
“Yes, you're right. Maybe a small derringer would do.”
“No. That is a last-resort weapon. You do not want anyone in that close before you defend yourself. And you want the option of multiple shots.”
“But how will I carry it?”
“I suggest in a holster on a belt around your waist.”
“But it will get in my way.”
“Like men, you will get used to it. First, you need Lucky to show you how best to safely use it.”
“Life seemed so much simpler in Jefferson.”
“Life appears simpler on the other side of the fence.”
“I suppose so.”
“Please come over here. I have tried to anticipate your every need.”
“Really?” Tempest eagerly followed Ludmila to a big black cash register with gold trim in back. She saw a pile of merchandise beside it.
“This small blanket will roll and tie behind your saddle. These saddlebags are good quality.” Ludmila stepped behind the counter.
Tempest stroked the brown leather of a saddlebag, regretting the lack of room compared to a carpetbag.
“Please let me know if any of this does not suit you.” Ludmila separated items into stacks. “Chemise and drawers. Two handkerchiefs. One jacquard shawl. One pair fabric gloves. One bar violet scented soap. One straw hat with a wide brim to protect your complexion. One corset, but I do not recommend using it on horseback.”
“You will need comfort and the ability to breathe deeply.”
Tempest nodded as reality struck her. She was trading her home of four walls for one of four legs. Everything she needed, and it couldn't be much, had to fit on the back of a horse.
“I also chose a lavender blouse and purple split-skirt.”
“What's a split-skirt?”
“I assumed you would not want to ride sidesaddle.”
“Do you mean ride like a man?”
“Or a woman with sense,” Lucky said, walking over to them. “If you ride sidesaddle in Indian Territory, you might fall and break your neck. Besides that, uneven weight is hard on a horse.”
“But I've only ridden sidesaddle.”
“I understand,” Ludmila said. “But this is no ordinary venture.”
Tempest looked from one to the other, realizing that they were serious. First, a gun. Now, a split-skirt. By the time this adventure was over, she wouldn't be the same person. How would she ever explain her outrageous actions to Elmira and Lamira, the most gracious of belles?
“A canteen for water,” Ludmila continued. “Beef jerky. Crackers. Cheese.”
“Double that food,” Lucky said.
“And here is the holster and belt for your new Smith &Wesson. I thought black would match your boots.”
“What new S&W?” he asked.
“The one you've been admiring,” Tempest said. “Won't you want me as backup when we cross the Red River?”
“Can you even shoot a gun?”
“You're going to teach me.”
“I recommend the pearl stock,” Ludmila said. “And a box of cartridges.”
“You said to get whatever I need for the trip.”
“Okay. Just don't accidentally shoot either of us.” Lucky tapped the merchandise. “Are we done here?”
“Not quite,” Ludmila said. “There's the matter of the red gown. Nothing in the catalogs is good enough, but I can order fabric and a pattern. Yet we do not have a local seamstress who can do justice to such an undertaking.”
“Any red dress will do,” Lucky said.
Ludmila frowned. “Certainly not. This is important to Delaware Bend's reputation.”
“Reputation!” Lucky shook his head, laughing. “I'm not sure anybody around here will recognize or appreciate fine art.”
“What about the bar?” Tempest asked.
“But that'sâ” He glanced from one woman to the other, and then snapped his mouth shut.
“Will you trust me to select the pattern and fabric?” Ludmila asked.
“Yes.” Tempest had a sudden idea. “I know two wonderful seamstresses who could do the job.”
“Are they in town?”
“No. We'd need to send the material, pattern, and payment to them.”
“Where are they?” Ludmila asked.
“Jefferson. And we can ship by train.”
But they do not know me.”
“Once we let Elmira and Lamira know it's for me, they will be happy to help. Besides, I'd like to send a double eagle to them.” She glanced over at Lucky, and then held out her hand. “First payment.”
When she closed her fingers around the eagle, she felt its warmth from his body heat. So much about him was hot, too much for her peace of mind. “I'll write a letter to go with the coin and explain my situation. I'd also like to leave the artist's payment here.”
“I will write you a receipt and put your money in the bank,” Ludmila said. “And I'll get your letter right in the mail.”
“Is there anything else I can get you?”
“This is all perfect,” Tempest said.
“Wait.” Lucky pointed at a jewelry display. “I promised her a bauble.”
“Oh, no,” Tempest protested. “I have everything I need right here.”
“I suggest a lovely pin that she can wear on everything.” Ludmila selected a pin and set it on the counter. “This one is eighteen-karat plate lace with a real porcelain pansy. It matches her eyes. Only thirty-nine cents.”
“Beautiful.” Tempest resisted the temptation to pick up the pin and admire it. “But I don't need jewelry.”
“That's the point,” Lucky said. “Let me have it.”
“No telling when you might want a pretty pin.”
Tempest watched as Ludmila slid the delicate pin into a small cloth bag, pulled the drawstring, and handed it to him.
Lucky quickly paid the bill.
“Thank you both. I'm overwhelmed with gratitude,” Tempest said.
Ludmila patted her hand. “I'm grateful for the big sale.”
“If we can get on the road, I'll be eternally grateful,” Lucky said.
Tempest glanced from one to the other, feeling warmth in her heart that she hadn't felt in a long time. If she could stay in the Bend where people appreciated and accepted her, she could be happy. But everything, the support, the friendship, the money, depended on her riding into Indian Territory to risk life and limb on goals she had no way of knowing that she could complete.
She wasn't an artist's model any more than she was a Spirit Rattler. She wasn't a lawman any more than she was a temperance worker. Yet, somehow, she must be all of these things. To fail meant to sink back into her old life and leave Elmira and Lamira vulnerable. She was made of sterner stuff.
Against all odds, she would win.