“Jake, honey, got a minute?”
Jake McCabe set aside last night’s balance sheet and motioned for the tall redhead to enter. “What is it now, Dory?” He thought about telling her he was busy, but that wouldn’t solve his dilemma.
Lately, she’d been hinting about marriage. Dory was a very attractive woman and knew the ways around a man’s body, but since his father passed away four months ago, he was now the owner of the Long Horn Saloon, which made him her boss. Jake never mixed business with pleasure. Things had a way of getting too emotional.
As far as marriage, well, he’d been through one disastrous union. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake again.
Dory dismissed his wearisome tone with a smile and softly closed the door.
Jake watched her approach his desk. She added a bit more of a wiggle to her hips, but it wasn’t going to change his mind. “If it’s to tell me that Megan and Claire are still griping at each other, then you can turn your tail right back around and let them know I’ll be up in five minutes with belt in hand.”
“The girls are over their little snit,” she replied huskily and sashayed behind him.
She reminded him of a hungry wolf eager to devour its prey, but Jake preferred to be the hunter, not the hunted.
“I thought perhaps you’d like a bit of company since all is quiet at the moment.” She began to massage the back of his neck. It felt good… too good. “Why so tense?” she asked, adding fuel to the fire by suckling his earlobe.
He thought of something else being suckled and his cock swelled in a natural response. All he’d have to do was reach for his fly and she’d be on her knees taking him in deep. Fuck.
Dory blew softly into his ear. “We’d be so good together, Jake, both in bed and running this saloon.”
Shit! “Enough already, Dory. You know the rules. I don’t fuck the girls who work for me.”
“Dammit, Jake, I thought we had something special between us. Like taking our relationship a step further.”
“Then you thought wrong.”
Her eyes welled with tears. “You sure can be a cold-hearted bastard,” she said, adding a pitiful sob, which he openly ignored. Dory was a tough cookie.
“Yup.” He tapped his temple. “Don’t forget smart too.”
Amazing how those tears magically disappeared. “I recall a time when you enjoyed the feel of my hand and mouth on your cock.”
Jake blew out a frustrated sigh. “That was before Pa died and I inherited this goddamned place.” He leaned forward. “Neither one of us made any promises, Dory.”
With a toss of her head, she flounced to the door, only to stop and spare him a glance over one bare shoulder. “Could it be you’re still hankering after that pretty little thing from New Orleans?”
“Don’t go there, Dory. You won’t care for the outcome.”
Dory blanched and Jake cursed himself for losing control of his temper. He was the only one to blame for that colossal mistake. Even his own father had warned him not to act so hastily.
Now that he was no longer a gullible eighteen-year-old boy he understood what his father had been trying to tell him. Sometimes beauty can be a cover for a vengeful heart. It was a lesson he had to learn the hard way.
To add more shit to the already steaming pile that seemed to sum up his life lately, he was now the sole proprietor of the Long Horn Saloon and boss of five women. Herding a pack of feral cats had to be much easier.
He tapped his fingers on his desk. “You say Claire and Megan settled things between them?”
“They’re not screaming at each other anymore if that’s what you mean,” Dory replied, smiling faintly. “You best be on guard, though. Megan picks fights on purpose. Just seeing you come up to their room swinging that belt makes her wet and horny. She insists on calling you Papa Jake.”
Jake grunted. He should’ve paid attention to his gut instinct when Megan showed up looking for a job. Her brash manner spelled trouble, but he’d hired her anyway. She needed the money and he needed another girl after one took off with a traveling salesman. Since then she’d caused nothing but discord.
“Dory, I don’t give a horse’s ass what she or anyone else calls me, but make one thing clear to them all. I don’t play games. Once I find someone to take this place off my hands I’m gone. The next owner might not be so tolerant of her shenanigans.”
Dory shrugged. “Megan craves attention. She wasn’t here when your pa owned the saloon. He seemed happy talking with his buddies. Took his mind off losing your ma, I suppose.”
“It did until his ex-partner Ray Foley fucked things up. He was supposed to be Pa’s partner. Share the load, but all he did was sit around and drink the profits.” Jake was convinced the constant bickering between the two men had taken a toll on his father’s heart.
He grabbed the papers he had set aside. Without looking up, he asked, “Is there anything else?”
“No.” Seconds later the door slammed shut.
Left alone with his thoughts, Jake leaned back in his chair and folded his arms behind his head. Tense was too mild of a word to describe his demeanor right now. Aggravated was more to the point.
Ray Foley hadn’t been able to get a loan to buy the saloon so he’d asked Jake’s father, John, to be his partner.
Being long-time friends, John had agreed. They would share responsibilities and split the profits once the bills were paid.
But it hadn’t taken long for Ray to take advantage of the situation. He’d grab a bottle of whiskey off the shelf and fall asleep in the back office while John did all the work.
Jake couldn’t recall a time when his father had raised his voice, but when the daily accounts began coming up short, John brought it to Ray’s attention. Ray had accused John of calling him a thief, which had caused a rift between the two men.
Ray had walked out of the verbal deal leaving John holding the bag. John had to delve into the family savings in order to pay off Ray’s share of the saloon.
It didn’t take long for Ray to come crawling back full of apologies and empty promises. John adamantly refused to reestablish their former working relationship and that ended their friendship.
When his father passed away, Jake wasn’t shocked to find out that he was now the sole proprietor of the saloon even though he had mentioned to his father time and time again that he wanted nothing to do with it.
Running the Long Horn and bullshitting with his buddies had been a distraction for his father. Without his wife by his side, he had become depressed and that had worried Jake. It had seemed a grand idea at first, but Ray’s lackadaisical manner and love for the bottle had screwed things up.
Now the bastard was hanging around the saloon like a fly on a bull’s ass trying his best to weasel his way back into the business, but he was wasting his time. No matter how much Jake longed to be rid of the place, he would heed his father’s wishes and not sell to Ray Foley. He didn’t trust the man. As a matter of fact, he didn’t trust anyone since his ex-wife, Lucille, had screwed him over.
He remembered the day he’d met her like it was yesterday. He’d gone into town countless times without incident, but one day as he was passing by the train station, hair the color of sunshine had caught his attention. Mesmerized, he slowed his horse and watched a beautiful lady exit the train on the arm of an older gentleman. Their gazes connected and he felt as if he’d been sucker-punched in the gut.
His knees shook and he nearly fell flat on his face when he dismounted. He walked over to them and introduced himself. “Sir, I’m Jake McCabe.”
The older man looked confused but shook Jake’s outstretched hand. “Martin Warren and this is my daughter, Lucille. Is there something on your mind, young man?”
Without further ado, Jake immediately asked permission to court Lucille.
Jake recalled Martin’s stern words. “Young man, you both just met. For all, I know you could be some sort of outlaw. Besides, we don’t plan on staying long in Dodge. We’ll be heading home to New Orleans in a few days.”
But Lucille playfully smacked her father lightly on the arm. “Oh, Daddy, don’t be so dramatic.” She looked at Jake with those captivating blue eyes. “I’d love to spend some time with you, Jake.”
A few days turned into weeks. Then, despite warnings from both John and Martin about rushing into things, Jake asked Lucille to be his wife.
On his wedding day, Jake had been on top of the world, but it hadn’t taken long for that world to come crashing down around him.
Their first night together had been a disaster. Eyes wide and covered up to her chin in blankets, Lucille watched him undress. Youth and haste had been Jake’s downfall. The mere sight of his cock thrusting upward had Lucille scrambling from the bed and seeking refuge in the bathroom.
Jake cursed himself for being too eager and not taking his virgin bride’s tender sensibilities into consideration.
Despite his desperate need to claim what belonged to him, Jake promised to be patient and understanding. He’d wait until she was ready, only ready never came. Whenever he joined his bride in bed she was either fast asleep or sobbing for her daddy, who had left for New Orleans right after the wedding.
Jake tolerated her sour moods with gritted teeth and eyes rolled heavenward. He listened to her complaints about ranch life with an open mind. Lucille had been surrounded by servants since the day she was born so he asked Martha if she would teach Lucille about the running of a household.
Martha and her husband, Wilbur, were good honest people. Pa hired the middle-aged couple shortly after Ma died. Wilbur minded the barn and the horses while Martha did the cooking and cleaning. Wilbur was more on the silent side while Martha was loud and boisterous. But Martha was also a kind-hearted soul and was delighted to help, but when he walked in on Lucille berating Martha for not having her tea ready on time, he had had enough. What his spoiled wife needed was a good dose of some old-fashioned discipline. He took her by the arm and towed her upstairs for a good spanking.
Only two swats in and Lucille screamed so loud he thought for sure the roof would cave in. She demanded to be taken back to town and have the marriage annulled. She would not stay married to a man who was cruel enough to beat her.
At the end of his rope, Jake happily obliged. In record time he had the horses hitched to the wagon and pointing in the desired direction. He even purchased a ticket and booked her a room in the nearest hotel.
She had the grace to admit that she’d married him to spite her father, who had another suitor in mind. A suitor much older than her and one she didn’t fancy. She never expected her father to give in so easily and basically abandon her.
They parted on good terms or so he had thought. Before Lucille got on the stage she made sure to tell anyone who’d listen that Jake had beaten her.
Flummoxed, Jake could only deny the charges and was relieved that his father had believed him. His close friends hadn’t believed the tale either, but some townsfolk still regarded him suspiciously to this day. Lucille’s father made sure Jake knew exactly what he thought of a man beating a woman.
Jake never bothered to explain his side of the story. He signed the annulment papers and worked on putting the past where it belonged. Never again would he fall for a pretty face and fake tears.
Snapping back to the present, Jake pushed aside those disturbing memories. Women were nothing but trouble. He was going to think long and hard about giving marriage another shot. He was only twenty-two. He still had time to find the right woman. One who didn’t use fake tears or pretend to be something she wasn’t. He’d marry a true proper lady.
Hell, he should be grateful to Lucille. She taught him a valuable lesson. She may have broken the boy, but in the end, the experience only hardened the man he had become.
Jake left the office chuckling to himself. The only female he knew who didn’t use tears in order to get her way was Ray’s daughter, Emmaline. The little hoyden had a knack for firing up his temper with just a smirk.
They weren’t close friends. At the age of seventeen, the last thing Jake wanted to do was babysit a temperamental brat, but whenever her parents stopped by for a visit, the imp would beg and plead to go to the waterhole located on the property just about a half-mile from the house. And every damn time he’d be the one who had to go with her just in case she’d wander too far and drown.
He could only wish.
But he wasn’t about to let her do the dictating. If he had to spend the day sitting on a rock baking in the hot sun while Emmaline frolicked in the water then there would be some rules, like not swimming where the water was too deep.
She had broken that rule the very first day. As soon as she hit the water she’d inch toward the deeper end of the pool, stopping once in a while to toss a glance over her shoulder as if daring him to come after her. He’d been tempted to let her wander as far as she pleased, but his conscience wouldn’t allow it. So he pretended to ignore her even though his sights were on her at all times.
Rule number two. He decided when to call it a day. She wouldn’t whine or plead to stay a few minutes longer. But Miss Emmaline Foley had proven once again to be a disobedient brat.
Jake recalled the first time he motioned for her to get out of the water. He stood at the water’s edge with his fists propped on his hips and the hellion deliberately ignored him. Reining in his temper, he calmly ordered her out of the water and when that failed he shocked her by diving into the water fully clothed and dragging her out.
After that incident all he’d have to do was stand up and give her ‘the look’ and she’d head straight for the shore.
When her mother passed away the visits ended. No more excursions to the swimming hole. Every so often he’d think about Emmaline and wonder how she was faring. It seemed so long ago since they had gone head to head over her stubbornness or his high-handed attitude. The brat must be eighteen or nineteen by now. Hell, she might even be married for all he knew. His failed marriage had hardened him to the wiles of women. If he had an itch to be scratched he went on to the next town. He knew how to cook and wash his own clothes. He didn’t need a woman around.
The talk in town was cheap. Most of the time it was about Ray Foley and the despicable manner in which he had raised his daughter. She was very outspoken and behaved like a lady only when she felt like it.
Somehow Jake wasn’t at all that surprised. She’d always been spirited. A big difference from the gently bred Lucilles of the world.
As he matured his sexual appetites had changed.
He relished a challenge. He longed to tame a wildcat. Bend her to his will. Spank her ass until she pleaded for him to fuck her hard. To fuck her ass. Squeeze her punished cheeks until she screamed his name. Show her in no uncertain terms that he was the only man capable of making her burn. Women like Lucille would faint to be handled so roughly.
The last time he’d seen Emmaline fairly up close was over a year ago, only she hadn’t seen him. The afternoon sun had been relentless that summer day and, on the spur of the moment, he decided to go for a swim. He never expected to see Emmaline and her friend, Amelia, there frolicking in their undergarments.
Acting more like an unruly schoolboy, he hunkered down behind some bushes and watched as they emerged from the water. Amelia was a pretty girl, but his focus remained on Emmaline. His cock swelled at the sight of her pink perky nipples and the shadowy cleft between her thighs. Emmaline Foley had grown into a beautiful young woman.
Jake sighed. Emmaline was a beauty with a wild streak just waiting to be tamed and by God, he wanted to be the man to tame her.
She was also the daughter of a man he despised and for his sake and hers, he had to keep his distance.
“Cows fed and bedded down for the night?”
“Yes, Papa,” Emma replied, scooping another spoonful of stew onto a battered tin plate. She set the plate on the table in front of her father and picked up a small bowl. Scraping what little was left into it, she joined him at the table.
“Way too many greens and potatoes in this shit. Add more meat next time.”
With a shaky hand, Emma picked up her spoon. She never learned that sometimes it was better to keep her mouth shut. “I use what you give me.”
The slap came out of nowhere, knocking the spoon from of her hand and sending it clattering to the floor.
“You implying I don’t provide enough for this household?”
“I’m only speaking the truth,” she mumbled, picking up the spoon and tossing it in a basin filled with soapy water. On her way back to the table she grabbed another one from the cupboard and sat down once again.
“Gal, you reach eighteen yet?”
“I turned nineteen two weeks ago, Pa.”
“Then what’s with the pants and baggy shirt? It’s time you got hitched. You won’t find a man looking like a boy.”
Her father belched loudly then wiped his mouth along his soiled shirtsleeve, ignoring the square linen she had placed beside his plate.
Emma merely shrugged.
“Don’t just sit there disrespecting me. Don’t you see me struggling day in and day out? I could use another man around here. I’m getting old, gal.” He paused only long enough to shove a spoonful of stew in his mouth. “Just forget it. No decent man would give you a second glance anyway.”
Bits of food spewed everywhere as he continued an onslaught of insults from her appearance right down to her housekeeping skills. Her appetite lost, Emma quietly accepted his ridicule. He had his drinking buddy, Jeb Montgomery and his son, Chad to blame for her sudden change in attire.
Just the other day, Chad had cornered her in the barn while she was brushing down her horse and tried to steal a kiss. He left that day sporting a black eye. Later in the evening Jeb had stopped by for a game of cards and found her alone in the kitchen.
He’d grabbed her breast and when she opened her mouth to scream, his tongue touched hers only for the briefest of seconds but it was enough to make her gag. She kneed him in the groin. While he was busy clutching his balls she ran back to her room.
First thing in the morning she’d told her pa what Jeb had done, but he insisted that she must’ve have misread his intentions and to forget about it. Furious, she ripped an old bed sheet in strips wide enough to bind her breasts. All men were alike. They were worse than animals and if her own father wouldn’t keep her safe then she’d have to do it herself. Rummaging through some old clothes, she found a couple of pairs of pants and shirts.
No longer would she wear dresses when they went to town. No longer would she keep her hair down or wear fancy ribbons. There was no man in town she wished to impress. Except maybe for one and he couldn’t care less.
A couple of days later she heard Jeb had taken a fall and would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Emma wasn’t the kind of person who’d deliberately wished bad things to happen to people, but she felt no remorse for the man or his son, Chad.
“I guess I wasn’t destined to be as beautiful as Ma.”
Ray’s reply was a loud harrumph. “Ain’t that the truth? Your mother was a handsome woman.”
“Then why didn’t you ever tell her? Why didn’t you ever make her feel wanted around here?”
“‘Cause them fancy words don’t get the work done, that’s why. I hoped she’d do me good and give me a son.” He eyed her with disgust. “I ended up with two useless females instead.”
Emma’s heart seized in her chest. His insults were an everyday occurrence, but there were times when every cruel word would pierce her like a barb. She swallowed hard. She would not show weakness and cry in front of him or any other man for that matter.
“Then you never really loved Ma.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? Love has nothing to do with it. The sooner you learn that the better off you’ll be. A man has certain needs, gal. Your ma took care of those needs. She cooked and cleaned and knew her place too and that’s something you still need to learn.” He jabbed a gnarly finger at her. “I need help around here. What about Chad?”
Puzzled, Emma raised a brow. “You want to hire Chad?”
“Jesus almighty, no. If I hired him I’d have to pay him. I’m talking about marriage, gal. He’s a fine boy, plus his family has money. Try to pretty yourself up and do some flirting. He’d make a damn good son-in-law if you ask me.”
Emma’s eyes widened in shock. “Marry Chad? He’s as disgusting as his father. Look, Pa, maybe I don’t want to get married.”
Ray Foley pushed back his chair and got to his feet. “Then what do you expect from me? I can’t keep feeding the two of us without you earning some money. A rich husband would be welcome around here.” He dug into his pants pocket for a wad of chew. “I’m going to town for a decent meal. While I’m gone you think long and hard about what I said.”
Left alone, Emma cleared the table and washed the dishes. She pumped water into a large pot and set it on the cook stove then went out and sat on the porch step while she waited for the water to heat.
Hugging her knees to her chest, she watched the sunset, marveling at the mixture of orange, purple, and pink. Another day was at its end. Being able to appreciate such a dazzling array of colors always gave her a sliver of hope that there was always a chance tomorrow could turn out much better than today.
Emma sat long after the sun had set and worried about her future. She had an awful feeling in her belly that Pa was hell-bent on marrying her off. She’d run away if he insisted she marry Chad. These were the times when she wished she had her ma to talk to. She missed their conversations.
Sometimes they’d sit outside on a fine night like this and she’d listen avidly while her ma would tell her stories about how life was when she had been a young girl living on a farm.
Emma matured quickly and their talks became more intimate. She remembered wanting to know why the boys at school would stare at her chest.
“Don’t pay any attention to them,” her ma said. “They’re just being immature.”
Then the subject of marriage came up.
“A man will never lose his freedom, Emma. He’ll be able to do whatever he wants without question. A woman can’t lose her freedom because she never had any to begin with. She’d be expected to obey and respect her husband.”
That didn’t sound fair to Emma. “So, when, or if, I ever fall in love and get married, nothing would really change. It’d be just like it is now only I’d have a husband to answer to instead of a father, right, Ma?”
“That’s right, Emma,” her ma replied. “But there’s more. A wife must always accommodate her husband by submitting to his will whenever the urge comes over him.”
So, what exactly was this urge?
Emma smiled. Her poor mother had hemmed and hawed so much over the question that Emma felt guilty for asking. Evidently, men were more prone to these urges than women.
“Your new husband will teach you everything you need to know. Then, when you swell with child and deliver a healthy son to carry on the family name, you’ll know happiness.”
Emma pondered a moment. “But what if the baby turned out to be a girl?”
Her ma’s tone became sullen. “Some men would be happy and some would want to keep trying for a son. A wife also had no right to complain if her husband went elsewhere to satisfy his urges.”
Right from the start, Emma had issues with this entire scenario. “Don’t women have urges too?” That question had earned her a fierce scolding.
“Emmaline Foley, decent moral women don’t have urges. If they did they’d get down on their knees and pray for strength.”
After that their talks became few and far in between.
Emma’s face grew hot. If the past couple of nights were any indication then she couldn’t consider herself a moral woman. There wasn’t a position she could find that would help to hinder the urge to touch the most intimate parts of her body.
She even tried sleeping on her belly with her hands trapped beneath so they wouldn’t stray, only to awaken with one hand between her legs and her body covered in a thin sheen of sweat.
One time Emma asked why she never had a sibling to play with and was shocked to learn that she had a little brother who died at birth. Deep in the back of her mind, she often wondered if that was the reason why her father didn’t like her.
The cooing of a dove snapped Emma back to the present. She had to face facts. Life was tough and for a single woman tougher still. If her only option was to marry then she’d do the choosing. She wouldn’t marry Chad Montgomery if he was the last man on earth. He was just a younger version of his father.
A suitable man would have to be confident and strong both in mind and body just to get along with her pa. The only man who came to mind was Jake McCabe, her childhood friend and oftentimes tormentor. Granted she had given as good as she got and he’d teased her mercilessly, but if she was ever bullied all she had to do was tell Jake and he’d take care of everything.
Emma rested her forehead on her bent knees. That was years ago when life seemed to be much easier and worry-free.
Their parents had been very good friends. Whenever they would visit the McCabes’ home she’d have to tag along because she wasn’t old enough to stay home by herself. But whenever the McCabes would come to her house, Jake was nowhere to be seen. The next time he saw her he’d call her a baby and she’d kick him in the shins.
Emma chuckled to herself. One way or another she always managed to get revenge. There was a swimming hole located at the end of the McCabes’ property and the only way Emma was allowed to go was if she had someone older go along with her.
That meant Jake would have to forgo any plans he may have made and play babysitter, which irked him to no end. She’d flash him a smirk and within seconds that familiar tic alongside his jaw would pop out and begin to bounce. Sometimes Jake’s close friend Jess would tag along. Although Emma liked Jess, he did his fair share of teasing too and that meant two against one, so she always had to keep her wits about her.
She had a terrible temper and never learned to control it. On one of their excursions to the swimming hole, she warned Jess countless times not to call her by her full name. He simply laughed off the threat so she picked up a rock and hurled it at his head. She watched in horror as he fell to the ground. Jake was there to take charge while she stood by crying and thinking she had killed him.
In the end, it all turned out well. Jess forgave her and insisted he could walk home by himself. Alone with Jake, she could almost feel the weight of his stare and when she finally got the courage to look at him, his expression was stern and unyielding. Even at the age of seventeen, he struck a very formidable figure.
He was furious and rightly so, but when he had taken a step toward her, she turned tail and took off in the opposite direction. She didn’t get far. He picked her up, tossed her over his shoulder, and ignored her screams of outrage. He set her on top of a large rock and delivered a lecture that nearly blistered her ears.
Suddenly, the gravity of the situation came crashing down around her and she burst into tears. She remembered how Jake gently lifted her down from the rock and let her cry on his shoulder. When she finally calmed down, he cupped her chin and brushed his mouth lightly across hers.
Stunned, Emma stepped back and placed a finger to her mouth. Their eyes connected for the briefest of seconds then he did the worst thing imaginable. He apologized. The kiss had been a mistake.
To this day Emma cherished the memory of that kiss even though it seemed Jake had deeply regretted it.
Not long after that, her ma had taken ill and passed away. There was no time for visits or weekly trips to town. She now had a household to run and rarely got a chance to relax. Once in a while she and her friend, Amelia, would sneak away to take a quick dip in her favorite waterhole.
She had lost all contact with Jake except on his wedding day. John McCabe had graciously put aside his discontentment with her father and sent them an invitation. Although Ray grumbled throughout the entire ceremony, Emma kept her eyes on Jake and when the parson turned to the bride, Emma had silently repeated the vows.
But to Emma’s surprise, Jake’s marriage hadn’t lasted long. Gossip and speculation had spread through town like wildfire. Lucille claimed he beat her. Emma refused to believe such vile nonsense. Jake was not a violent man.
After his father died, Jake had taken over the running of the Long Horn Saloon. Sometimes Emma would catch a glimpse of him when she went into town with her father and her heart would lurch in her chest every time. If that kiss from Jake so long ago would be a daily part of her duty as a good wife then she was all for it.
Sadly, she had come to the conclusion that the only man for her was Jake, but gaining his heart would be like trying to lasso the moon.
Emma stood up and stretched her arms high above her head. It was high time she got back inside and washed. Whenever Pa went into town for a few hours of drinking, she’d make sure she was in bed before he got home.