“Together?” Tempest asked, feeling her heart speed up as Lucky sat down beside her on the blanket.
“I wash your back. You wash mine.”
“You're trying to shock me, aren't you?”
He grinned, dimple showing. “Think how good that water will feel on your bare flesh.”
She felt a blush tint her face, but she didn't look away from his eyes, now more demon drink than ever. “You just like to be scandalous.”
“I'd like to be cool and clean. Wouldn't you?”
He pulled off a cowboy boot, then the other one. He followed with his socks, which he tucked into his boots. He wiggled his toes.
She glanced away, not wanting to admit that his feet were as pretty as the rest of him. Long toes. High arches. Small ankles. Couldn't she find something about him not to admire?
“Let me help you.” He reached for her boot.
She jerked her feet back and tucked her skirt over them. “I suggest we eat what's left of Mama Lou's muffins.”
“Are you going to feed me?”
“No. And I'm never traveling with muffins again. They just don't hold up in a saddlebag.”
He chuckled as he popped a big piece into his mouth. “But they're sure good.”
She felt better now that they were discussing food instead of bathing naked together, no matter how tempting the idea was to her senses. She ate the last muffin and followed it with a cool drink. The water reminded her of how much she would like to take a bath with her scented soap.
“Okay. We've eaten the muffins.” He shrugged out of his vest and set it aside. He unbuckled his gun-belt and set it beside his vest. He unbuttoned the sleeves of his shirt.
“What are you doing?”
“When I get in the water, you can close your eyes. I'll do the same for you.”
“Why don't you check on the horses while I take a bath? I'll call you when I'm done.”
“You sure you don't need a guard?
She chuckled. “I've been safe taking a bath alone for quite some time.”
“Now that's a crying shame.”
She laughed harder. “You're just looking for trouble.”
“Okay, if that's the way you want it.” He grinned as he stood up.
“I'll let you know when I'm done.”
“Call if you need me.” He sauntered off toward the horses, whistling under his breath.
She wondered if he'd been a little bit serious. If she'd agreed, would he have joined her? She'd never know, and that was just as well. She didn't need to add fuel to the fire of her interest.
She glanced around, but saw nothing suspicious. She could hear the low murmur of Lucky talking to the horses. She still felt stiff and sore, so she carefully removed her boots and socks. She eased out of her blouse and skirt, but left on her chemise and drawers. The air felt cool against her bare flesh. She picked up the top blanket and wrapped it around her body for modesty's sake.
She gathered her soap and headed for the creek, taking deep breaths of the invigorating air. When she stepped into ankle-high water, it felt deliciously cold. She walked along smooth pebbles and watched tiny minnows dart here and there in the clear water, flashing silver in the last rays of the Sun.
Not far down the creek, she came to the pool that was formed in a rocky crevice before the water continued on downstream. In a shaft of sunlight, she dropped her blanket on a pile of wood from a fallen tree and set the soap on top. She checked for any sign of danger. Nothing alarmed her. She stepped into the pool and water came up to her knees. She shivered from the cold as she sat down and let the water soothe her hot muscles.
Birds chirped high above. Bugs whined in the air. Small critters rustled in the grass. She relaxed to those soothing sounds of nature. She rolled her shoulders as she splashed water with her feet, feeling like a child again. She hadn't realized how tired and pent-up she'd been until this moment. So much in her life had changed so fast. She was in Indian Territory with someone who set her senses on fire. She'd never responded to any man like she did to him.
She reached back for the soap, missed it, knocked a branch off the pile, and finally captured the bar. She lathered the soap between her palms, washed all over, including her underwear, and watched the suds drift downstream. She tossed the bar up on the blanket and went back to contemplating the idyllic scene. If nothing else, Indian Territory was beautifully serene.
Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed movement on the woodpile and instinctively yelped out loud. When she heard a rattle, she froze, not daring to turn her head or make another sound. Everybody in Texas knew the dangers of rattlesnakes and killed them on sight. If she moved, she was dead, but if she didn't move, she was dead. She was scared out of her wits. And Lucky was with the horses. Most likely he'd find her cooling body. At least, she'd sent twenty dollars to help Elmira and Lamira.
“Tempest, don't move. I was on my way when I heard you.” Lucky walked barefoot down the creek, unbuttoning his shirt.
She was so glad to see him that tears stung her eyes.
“Don't talk. Take shallow breaths.”
He stepped slowly, cautiously into the pool, barely moving the water. “That rattler's going to strike.”
She couldn't stop the shiver that shook her.
“I'll get him first.” Lucky wrapped his shirt several times around his right hand and wrist.
“No. Not you!” She felt pain at the thought of losing him.
In a fluid movement, he turned, twisted, and reached beyond her to pluck the snake from the woodpile. He stepped back, snake dangling from one hand where he held it below the jaws.
She leaped to her feet and backed to the other side of the pool. “Did it bite you?” She put a hand over her heart, trying to still the rapid beat.
“No.” He picked up the tail and stretched out the writhing snake. “Look at its length and the number of rattles. This is a granddaddy for sure.”
She was as shocked to hear the awe in his voice as she was at the fact that he hadn't been struck. Yet he'd grabbed the snake so fast, he'd almost been an unnatural blur of motion. Languid gentleman had morphed into fearless predator before her eyes. He wasn't even breathing fast. Perhaps he was more devil, Red Devil at that, than angel.
Indian, aren't you?”
He grinned, teeth white against skin bronzed by the setting Sun. “You asked me before if I'm a Rattler, too.
I'm a Sun Rattler.”
“I think we'd better kill that snake. Do you want me to get your revolver?”
“Kill my grandfather? No.”
A chill raced up her spine. She felt as if she had truly stepped from the world of the known into the unknown. She had a strong sense of Lucky being other, as if he could stalk the land like a panther as easily as he could waltz like a gentleman in a ballroom. She stepped back. Which was more deadly, the Sun Rattler or the rattlesnake?
is a messenger.” Lucky raised the snake and gazed eye to eye. The snake flicked out a forked tongue.
“What did you call him?”
is the Choctaw word for rattlesnake or supernaturally dangerous sacred snake. Diamondbacks are revered by the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and other tribes because they keep rats out of corn and grain stores.”
“The only good snake I know is a king snake.”
“Powerful medicine, too. But they kill and eat rattlesnakes in their territory.”
Lucky glanced at her, then back at the snake. “He's here to deliver a message.”
“I had too close a call with his message. Get rid of him.”
When Lucky didn't respond, she decided not to stay around for messages or snakebites. If he wanted to play games with deadly vipers, that was his choice. She could only hope he knew how to win. She edged around the pool, stepped up to the creek bed, and breathed a sigh of relief to be out of immediate danger. She looked back, but Lucky hadn't moved an inch.
“If you're not going to kill that snake, please throw it far away.” She put her hands on her hips and glared at him.
“I want to go back to camp.”
“We need to wait for the message.”
Lucky was starting to concern her. She was dependent on him out here. If she couldn't trust him to make rational decisions, she would have to make other plans. She was glad they weren't any deeper into Indian Territory. She could still find her way back to the Bend.
She turned away, but felt a strong compulsion to look back. When she did, she was shocked to see an Indian maiden standing beside Lucky and stroking the underside of the rattlesnake. The maiden wore large spool earrings with a simple dress of woven fabric that reached from her breasts to her knees. Her black hair hung long and loose to her waist. She nodded at Tempest, and then pointed toward the northeast.
Tempest blinked, but the sight didn't change. She'd never seen a wild Indian until now, but she had no doubt this was one. The maiden even had a solar cross over her heart like the one on Lucky's chest. She also had an image of the crescent Moon in the center of her forehead. If the woman hadn't been touching the snake, Tempest might have thought she was a ghost.
The maiden pointed at her own heart, and then spread out her left hand and held the palm toward Tempest's heart.
Tempest suddenly felt dizzy. She sank to her knees. She felt a burning sensation on the skin over her heart. She rubbed the spot, trying to ease the pain. And all the while she gazed into the maiden's luminous dark eyes.
Finally the maiden nodded, and then pointed toward the northeast again. She turned to Lucky and touched the solar cross over his heart. He knelt and released the rattlesnake on the east bank.
The maiden and the snake moved northeast as the Sun disappeared in the west and day turned to dusk.
Tempest took a deep breath, shuddering all over. She felt shocked, afraid, and angry at the same time. She didn't know what had happened, but it had been so strange that she didn't know what to think.
“Are you all right?” Lucky knelt beside her.
She stood up and backed away from him.
“The message was for you, wasn't it?” he asked.
“Don't play games!” Anger took over. She turned her back on him and stalked up the stream, splashing through the water.
“What was the message?” He followed her.
She stopped and turned around. “Where did you get that Indian maiden? I suppose that's her pet snake. Was this all some sort of clever Indian joke on the white lady?”
“You saw a maiden? What did she look like?”
Tempest stepped out of the water. “You know very well that she has that solar cross over her heart. Only she has an image of the crescent Moon on her forehead, too.”
Lucky caught her arm and whirled her around to face him. “Say that again.”
“I don't know what your game is, but I'm sick of it. I suppose she's your relative.”
“Tempest!” He grabbed her around the waist, whirled her around, lifted her up, and clasped her to his chest.
“Put me down!” She kicked out with her feet. “And then she just walked off with that rattlesnake as if they were friends.”
He threw back his head, laughed, and whirled around again before he headed toward the blankets.
“Lucky, I'm sick at my stomach.”
“You'll feel better soon.”
“I'm never going out in the woods again.”
When he chuckled, she slapped his chest and felt bare flesh . . . hard, hot skin. She remembered he'd taken off his shirt to catch the rattlesnake, and then she remembered that she was wearing only her wet underclothes. One of his strong hands was wrapped around her left hip and the other cradled the underside of her breast. She felt as if she might combust from the touch of him.
She kicked out, but that only served to make him adjust his hold to an even more intimate part of her inner thigh. “Stop that!”
He laughed again.
She thought he sounded more like he was howling at the Moon. She wouldn't be surprised if he built up a campfire and danced around it in a panther-skin or snakeskin. How could she have thought he was a gentleman?
He stepped onto the blanket under the oak tree and slowly lowered her, letting her slide down the length of his body. She felt that treacherous fission of fire ignite deep in her belly at the feel of his bare chest under her fingertips. She snatched her hands away and backed off.
“I gathered some wood earlier. I'll start a fire.” He removed the shirt wrapped around his arm and tossed it down.
“No!” She had a sudden vision of him dancing and howling around the fire. From the way she felt, she might be tempted to join him.
“I mean, it's warm enough.”
“It'll be cool later.”
He crouched, struck a match, and lit the campfire. Light blazed up, throwing his face into stark relief.
She didn't think she'd ever seen him look so handsome or so dangerous. She could see the Indian in him now, the sharp planes of his cheekbones and his high-bridged nose. The passion and power in his eyes, not whiskey colored but polished amber. With light playing over the bare skin of his chest, he could be from any time or place. And yet, he appeared rooted deeply to this land.
“Come and sit by the fire. Drink some water.”
“No. I don't think so.”
“Tempest, we need to talk. I'll explain.”