As Lucky rode down Main Street, amusement warred with amazement. He could just imagine them painting him red, putting him in buckskins and a long feather headdress, then sending him on stage. They'd probably want him to perform a war dance or get shot by gunslingers.
“What are you laughing about?” Tempest asked.
“Burt and Bob. Manny, too. Have you ever heard anything so crazy?”
“That's not a question you should ask Temperance Tempest.”
He laughed harder. “Guess you've got a point.”
“Do you think there's something in the Bend's water?”
“Maybe it's you.”
“Not likely. But Burt and Bob are pretty impressive.”
“Do you think they might actually pull off their Wild West show?”
“Anything's possible.” Lucky took a deep breath. “Maybe their hopes and plans are the most important part.”
“I'd hate to see everybody disappointed.”
“Maybe they won't be.” He rode over close to her. “No way to know somebody else's path. Best we can do is handle our own.”
“You're right. And we've got plenty to handle.”
When she turned big, violet eyes on him, he felt the familiar heat blaze up. He didn't know how he was going to keep his hands off her, not when they had so much to do and so far to go.
Maybe she felt his heat singe her, because she blushed and looked away. He couldn't blame her. She didn't need a man with his prick running his life. And if he wasn't careful, that's exactly who he'd be so long as he was with her.
“Do you know those men staring at us?”
“What men?” He didn't look around, just in case it was trouble. He never wanted to alert another that he'd foreseen their intentions.
“We've passed them now. They're standing in the shadow of that saloon on the right.”
“What makes you think they're watching us? Maybe they're just watching the town go by.”
“Perhaps it was my imagination.”
“Trust your instincts. If something alerted you, listen to it. What did you notice?” He dropped his hand to the .44 on his hip about the time he felt a telltale uneasiness crawl up his spine.
“Three men. Maybe more. They looked like any other men, dusty cowboys or outlaws. Hats shaded their eyes.” She hesitated. “It was their feet.”
“What about them?”
“I can't give you a description, like plain or fancy shoes. But their feet were pointed right at us. They stood as if braced for action, weight evenly distributed. And they were too still.”
“Please look again. Open your saddlebag and take something out. As you do, glance down the street, but don't look directly at them.”
“Are we in danger?”
“It's best to keep a sharp eye out.”
“Okay. I'll do it.”
While Lucky waited, now alert for trouble, he reached out with his senses. He should have done it before, but he'd been too amused by the Hayes Brothers and everything surrounding the Wild West show. He knew better. His only excuse was distraction, particularly by Tempest.
Now that he was focused, he could feel the others. Three wasn't the right number. There were more. Felt as if they were connected by gossamer threads entwined like a spiderweb. Something about that connection was faintly familiar, but too far away or too weak or too camouflaged for him to get an accurate reading of the source. For now, it was enough that she had recognized the interest. Maybe the men weren't dangerous, but on this mission he must consider everything a threat until proven otherwise.
Tempest turned around, holding Mama Lou's napkin with a crumpled muffin. “These muffins are making a big mess in my saddlebag.”
“We can clean it up later. Right now, take a bite, and then offer the muffin to me.”
“Just do it.”
After she took a bite, he moved in close and leaned over. She held out the muffin, and he bit down where she'd had her lips, her tongue, her teeth. He imagined nibbling, licking, and scorching her bare flesh.
“Don't you want to know what I saw?”
“First, give me another bite.”
“Are you trying to make a point?”
“Yes. I want everyone to see that we're close.”
“It might not be good for my reputation.”
“But it could keep you safe.”
She held out the muffin again. When he took a bite, he gently nipped her fingers and watched her reaction. She blushed a tantalizing shade of pink. He wanted nothing more than to taste her all over. Thoughts like that made for an uncomfortable ride, what with a hard prick straining against his blue jeans.
“Go ahead, tell me now.”
“Their feet were still pointed toward us.”
“Yes. They were definitely watching us.”
“You told me not to look directly at them. I only have a general impression of medium heights and lean builds. I'm sorry. That's not much help.”
“You did well. They may have nothing to do with us, but we'll be watching for them.”
As they rode out of town, he looked back. No way to tell anything from there, but he still felt that awareness. He didn't like it. Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was something. He'd stay alert.
“Good-bye, Texas. Hello, Indian Territory,” Tempest called out.
He glanced over and caught the glint of excitement in her violet eyes. Maybe she'd never been so far away from home.
“I bet the north side of the Red River isn't nearly as big and bad as everybody claims.”
“Let's hope not.”
“A few outlaws don't frighten me.”
Lucky chuckled, shaking his head. “Fact is, you'd probably scare them.”
She joined his laughter. “Don't worry. If any of them are bad hombres, I'll defend you with my trusty .32.”
“Thanks. I feel safer now.”
“You'd better. I'm your secret weapon.”
He caught his breath at those words. She might be kidding, but she was right. She was his Spirit Rattler. And she was the key to everything.
“So this is Indian Territory.” Tempest watched the sluggish Red River wind its way around sandbanks as it meandered east. “I'm glad the river is low. Anna picked up enough red mud as it is.”
“I suppose you want to wash her hooves.”
“I'm sure she'd appreciate it.”
“Just be glad we didn't have to swim our horses over.”
“Don't even mention it.” She twisted in her saddle, looking back and forth from her vantage point on top of the bluff. “I don't see much difference between Texas and Indian Territory.”
“We're in Chickasaw Nation. We'll be riding east into Choctaw Nation.”
“Are the Indians still wild?”
“We'll stay in the Five Civilized Tribes region. They were mostly removed from the Southern states. They're farmers, hunters, and businesspeople. They publish newspapers, create schools, and build capitol buildings.”
“They sound like Americans.”
“Perhaps Americans sound like them.”
“That's an interesting idea.”
“Ancient cultures, like those of Turtle Island, develop over time to the benefit of their people.”
“That is this land's original name.”
“I like it.” She glanced at him. “You sound like a teacher. How do you know these things?”
“I'm President of the Society for the Preservation of Antiquities.”
“I thought you were a treasure hunter.” She felt concern tighten her chest. What did she really know about this man? How could she have so blithely set out alone with him? What if he was as dangerous as Indian Territory? Yet, president of a society sounded respectable.
“I locate lost property for railways, banks, and others. But I have a special interest in antiquities. They're treasure, too.”
“Are we going after antiquities?” Now she understood him better. He must be like a Pinkerton detective. He located outlaws or their ill-gotten gains that the law couldn't find or reach. It sounded like a dangerous line of work. No wonder he was familiar with firearms, saloons, and Indian Territory. He'd also not want most folks to know too much about him, or he couldn't do his job. She was touched that he trusted her with the truth.
“Gold? Silver? Precious gems?”
“Even better than that.”
“What other type of treasure could there be?”
“There is a big market, especially in Europe, for Indian antiquities.”
“Like those artifacts they found in Egypt?”
“I didn't know we had pyramids.”
“We do, but they're built of earth. Mounds. Some were for burial while others were platforms for temples or homes.”
“Do you mean that Indians buried stuff with their chiefs like the Egyptians?”
“But you said there wasn't gold and silver.”
“Indians used beaten copper, pottery, shells, pearls, crystal, and other natural elements.”
“And it's valuable now?”
“It's limited, so collectors will pay a pretty penny.”
“That's good for Indians, isn't it? I mean, if they want to part with their heritage.” She cocked her head as she looked at him, feeling as if she couldn't learn the antiquities business fast enough. If she was going to help him, as well as herself, she needed to understand everything she could about this new world.
“That's the trouble. These sites are all that is left of ancient cities that haven't been used in hundreds of years. As far as Americans are concerned, nobody has claim on them. Fortunately, they mostly look like hills, so many are left alone.”
“If you need my help, something must have changed.”
“There's a site that is vulnerable. Choctaws are farming the area right now, but I've heard a rumor that the site has come to the attention of a major antiquities group. They have the resources to go after the site.”
“What about the Choctaw Nation?”
“The Choctaw Lighthorsemen can't arrest Americans.”
“Deputy U.S. Marshals?”
“Few and far between. Plus, they have to catch the outlaws in the act.”
“But how can we stop them? I don't even know how to use my .32 yet.”
“We need to get there ahead of them.”
“That's why you're in a hurry?”
“How far is it?”
“Near Fort Smith.”
“That's a long way. Maybe you should have chosen somebody else.”
“There is no one else.”
“But I talk to ghosts. I don't hunt outlaws or save antiquities. Besides, I can't travel fast. I'll have to take breaks, or I'll never make it.”
“You'll be okay.”
“I just don't believe you've thought this through. Maybe I'd better return to the Bend. You need someone with a strong back and a fast gun.”
“Tempest, listen to me. Nobody knows exactly where the artifacts are in that ceremonial complex.”
She felt a chill run up her spine. “You want me to talk to dead Indians and find out.”
“I don't know if that's even possible. What if they're all gone?”
“We won't know till we get there.”
“But what language do they speak?”
“Somehow, you'll communicate.”
She sighed. “I really doubt this is going to work.”
“We already agreed. I'll help you and you'll help me.”
“I think you're getting the short end of the stick.”
“Let me be the judge of that.”
She adjusted her hat in irritation. “As far as I'm concerned, we're in no rush for you. Nobody knows where the artifacts are, so nobody can find them. Even if we locate a few ghosts, I may not be able to talk with them.”
“I'll take the chance.”
She looked back longingly toward Texas, wishing she was there right now. She wondered how much time would pass before she got back to the Bend. She already missed her new friends. Who knew what Burt and Bob would have planned by the time she saw them again? In light of Lucky's plans, they sounded like the rational ones. Now she understood why Lucky hadn't explained in detail what he wanted until they were across the Red River. A Wild West show put on by amateurs sounded more plausible than lost Indian treasure and thousand-year-old ghosts.
At least she wasn't as worried about Elmira and Lamira. She trusted Ludmila to get her letter and eagle to them soon. Twenty dollars would make a big difference in their lives. And there was more on the way.
“Might as well get moving,” Lucky said. “Let's see how far we can get today.”
She glanced at him. She must have been drunk on his whiskey-colored eyes to have agreed to his crazy scheme. When he flashed his dimple, she sighed. Maybe it was his broad shoulders, his narrow hips, his long legs, or simply the entire package called Lucky that had addled her brain.
She felt as if she were handling dynamite. If she ever struck a spark, they'd both catch fire and burn.
Late that afternoon, Lucky headed for Buffalo Creek, a small tributary that made its way down to the Blue River.
“How are you feeling?” He asked to be polite, but already knew. Tempest had drooped in her saddle a little more with each passing mile. They'd stopped only twice. Yet, she'd never complained, no matter how rough the ride.
“We're near camp. I've stayed there before. It's some distance from the road and provides good concealment. There's also fresh water, shade trees, and plenty of grass for the horses.”
“Sounds like paradise.”
“I'll be glad to get out of the saddle, too.”
When they came to the creek, he led them under the spreading branches of pecan, oak, and ash trees. The scent of wildflowers filled the air. Red-winged blackbirds rose into the air and swept away on a whoosh of wings. He rounded a thick clump of blackberry vines and came to water trickling over rocks to collect in a deep pool below. Tempest stopped beside him. Their shadows cast long, dark shapes across the creek.
“Beautiful,” she said. “Thank you for bringing us here.”
“Good place to rest.” He eased out of the saddle, feeling creaky from the long ride.
“I'm so stiff and sore, I may need help getting down.”
“I'll take care of you.”
“Thanks. I don't want to be in this saddle all night.”
“No chance.” He led Miko over to the creek. “Let's let our mounts drink first.”
While the horses drank their fill, he untied the blanket and saddlebags from his saddle. He carried them, along with his canteen, to an ancient oak tree. He kicked aside debris under the green canopy to make the area smooth, set everything down, and spread the blanket.
“That looks cozy,” she said.
“I'll put your blanket on top of mine and it'll be even better.”
He carried over her things, and then stretched out her blanket. It wasn't a feather mattress, but it beat bare ground by a mile.
When he turned back, she was watching him, violet eyes deep and fathomless. He'd managed to keep his thoughts in line till now. Here on a little creek in Indian Territory, she totally belonged to him. Nobody else could snag her attention or lure her away. Besides, she needed him, she was dependent on him, and if he didn't mistake the look in her eyes, she wanted him.
Different time, different place, different lady, he wouldn't give it a second thought. He'd make them both happy. But she was a Spirit Rattler. He didn't know what might interfere with her special power. Rattlers were notoriously drawn to each other, but they also powerfully affected each other. He didn't want to take a chance with the mission, but he didn't know how he was going to resist her, either.
“Lucky, the horses have had their fill. I really want to get down now. Please help me.”
“Hang on. I'll set Miko to grazing first.”
He quickly took off the gelding's bridle and saddle. He led the horse a short distance to a meadow thick with grass, and hobbled him so he wouldn't go far. When he walked back to Tempest, she was gripping her saddle horn and standing up in the stirrups.
“How are you doing?”
“I'm trying to limber up so I can get down.”
“Let's move your mare close to the blankets. That way, you won't need to walk so far.”
After he led Anna under the oak, he glanced up at Tempest. “You ready?”
“No. But here I come.”
“I won't let you fall.”
She swung her right leg over the saddle, but when she stepped down, she fell backward. He caught her, both hands spanning her waist. She felt small and vulnerable, strong and sensual at the same time. He wanted nothing more than to lower her to the blanket, slowly remove her clothes, and explore every curve and valley of her body.
“My boot heel's caught in the stirrup.”
Jerked back to reality, he slipped her foot free. He held her waist while she stepped down and got her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“Anytime.” He dropped his hands and reluctantly moved back.
“My legs feel rubbery, but I think I'm okay.” She took a few steps, but her legs buckled and she started to fall.
He caught her again. This time he made no pretense of keeping his distance. He put an arm around her shoulders and the other under her knees. He lifted her and held her tightly against his chest. He stood still, unable to go forward, unable to go back. She was his eternal present and he never wanted the moment to end.
He blinked, jerked back to reality again. He gently set her down on the blanket, and then abruptly turned his back. He grabbed Anna's reins and led her away in frustration.
Tempest was too much temptation. He couldn't think straight with a hard cock always at the ready. He had to make a decision. Make her his ladylove or get her to Fort Coffee another way. Rattler was calling to rattler. He wouldn't be able to resist the ancient dance much longer. He might be strong, but he had his limits.
He took his time with Anna, but finally he had to let her graze. He walked back to where he could see Tempest, but she couldn't see him. She looked like a temptress reclining in an idyllic nature scene in a painting. She'd taken off her hat, emptied her saddlebags, and set out food on red-check napkins. Big Jim and Saul were right. She'd be perfect for their artist.
As he watched, she drank from her canteen and water trickled down her chin to wet her blouse. No corset. He could see the outlines of two perfect mounds with hard tips. She dampened a handkerchief and cleaned her face. She fiddled with the first button of her blouse, then the second, third, and he could see the upper slopes of her breasts and deep cleavage. She wiped across the exposed area, back and forth, up and down. His prick grew harder as he imagined licking and sucking and nibbling her soft, warm flesh.
He took a deep, steadying breath. Did he seduce her? Make her belong to him? Spoil her for any other man?
She tossed down her handkerchief and buttoned her blouse.
That didn't make a damn bit of difference. Out of sight was not out of mind. He adjusted his blue jeans, for all the good it did, and walked toward her.
She glanced up and smiled, her violet eyes lighting up at the sight of him. She was made for bed sport. And he was made for her. He felt the predator in him rise up and snap his leash.
“You look hot, tired, and sore,” he said, walking up to her.
“I'm all that.”
“No point in wasting a perfectly good pool of water.”
“It does look enticing.”
“We're all alone out here. Nobody to see what you do.”
“But what about you?”
“Me?” He shrugged, pretending innocence. “I can take a nap or a walk.”
“Aren't you hot, tired, and sore, too?”
“Or I can join you.” And he smiled a predator's smile.