Could he tell just by looking? Could he see her heart beating through the thin fabric of her white linen gown? If she lied, would he know?
He was standing across the room, looking at her where she lay straight-legged and tense on the bed. Moonlight streaming through the window illuminated the ridges of his torso. She’d never seen a man without his shirt, wondered if he thought her wanton for staring so. But she couldn’t help herself. She was seized with longing to trace those ridges with her hands, to explore him. Her heart beat faster.
“Not scared,” she answered. “Just…” She was at a loss for words now as he approached. He’d been unfastening the belt at his waist and now it hung open, the ends framing the obvious bulge nudging against the front of his jeans.
She watched as he pulled the belt free of the loops. Her heart was thudding louder, and she waited for him to undo his pants. But instead, he sat down on the edge of the bed and stared for a moment, his eyes moving over her as hers had moved over him. When she squirmed under his scrutiny, he smiled and moved a hand to her face, trailing the backs of his fingers down her cheek.
“You’re the prettiest little thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “And there’s nothing to be nervous about. You’re my wife. That means I’m going to take care of you. I’m going to give you everything you need. Now some things you may not realize you need—like that spanking you got earlier.” At the mention of the spanking a flush of warmth spread through her body to center itself between her legs, and she wriggled a bit more in spite of herself.
His hand trailed down her arm now, and then lower to her hip. “But I think you know what you need from me now, even if you can’t bring yourself to ask for it.” His hand moved lower still, to the hem of her gown. Her gaze followed that hand as it slowly raised the hem. “But you don’t have to.”
She was riveted to his words, to the sound of his voice, so dark, so deep. The weight of what he was saying seemed to push her into the mattress, holding her helpless as his fingers moved over her hip to brush the curly fleece atop her mons. She shuddered.
“Don’t…” The word came out in a half-hearted squeak as he dipped a finger into her slit, sliding up through the slickness of her maiden arousal. But further protest died in her throat as he fixed her with the same commanding expression she’d seen earlier that day when he’d told her she was expected to mind him, in everything. She’d been so mad then—outraged even—that he’d treat her like a little girl on her wedding day by spanking her bottom so hard. But now, that memory, combined with the nearness of her powerful husband, created a wave of new and exquisite sensations between her thighs.
“Ohhhh…” She wanted to close her legs for want of modesty, so why was her body defying her? They were parting instead, and her still-tender bottom raised from the bed, aching for more of whatever he was doing. She felt a powerful throb centered where he was touching, a throb that spread to a quivering bubble that seemed to burst and ripple through her. She reached down, grabbed his wrist, and held it as she drove her hips toward his fingers. She felt her toes curl into the mattress of her marriage bed as pleasure continued to wash over her.
When she’d relaxed enough to sink back down, she looked at him through hooded lids.
“What was that?” she asked in a whisper.
A grin spread across the handsome face hovering over her. “That,” he said, “was your body paying me the highest compliment a woman can give a man. That was your body telling me I please you.”
She awoke with the remnants of the dream clinging to her like a warm fog. The throb between her legs was subsiding, and she bit her lip hard as the fog subsided along with it. She’d once read that the dead visited the living, and spoke to them.
Did this mean he was dead?
She rolled onto her side, jamming a knuckle into her mouth to suppress the sob that threatened to erupt from her throat. If he were dead, how would she know?
She closed her eyes, trying to block out the sounds of the docks that floated through the window of her small room. She tried to remember the sounds of soft breezes and field crickets. She could not.
She sat up, swinging her legs over the side of the bed. They were pale and thin. Martha was right; she needed to eat more. But it was all she could do to keep herself going.
A thin, reedy cry filled the room and she stood.
“Ssssh.” The wood under her bare feet was cold as she approached the cradle. Inside, the infant was kicking hard to free itself of the bunting that bound it, his little hands clenched angrily on either side of his reddening face. He was readying for a full-scale bawl, and she scooped him up before he could fill his lungs and put him against her shoulder. If he cried, Mother would rush in, pinch-faced and bleary-eyed to remind her—again—to keep him quiet.
She settled into the rocking chair by the window, pushing the top of her gown down over her swollen breast. She guided the baby to the nipple. He latched on hungrily, his tiny fingers scrabbling, the papery nails raking her skin.
Through the curtains, she could see first tinges of pink bleeding over the city skyline ahead of what was bound to be the hardest day of her life.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking into the eyes she thought might one day turn hazel. “I’m so, so sorry.”
This wasn’t how Sheriff Grant Jackson wanted to start his day.
“Thank god you’re here!”
The words weren’t spoken so much as screeched by the woman wildly waving as he approached. He’d almost reached the boarding house steps when she rushed to greet him, hiking her skirts to keep from tripping as she jogged down the steps. Flora Adams prided herself on being proper and constantly fretted about both her image and the image of her boarding house. If she wasn’t worried about flashing her calves, it must be serious.
Through the screen door behind her came the sound of a crash and slurred cursing. She’d reached him now, and Grant tried not to wince from the scent of violet water that emanated from her like a cloying cloud. Flora’s hands fluttered to a face caked in makeup that did little to hide the advancing march of years. Her chins wobbled indignantly as she pointed toward the noise.
“One of my boarders woke up drunk,” she said, pressing a palm to her heaving bosom. “And you know I don’t allow liquor in my rooms. Now he’s just in there making all kinds of trouble, and I can’t…”
“Calm down, Flora,” he said as she continued to babble. “Whatever he’s busted can be replaced. But if he kills somebody while I’m talking to you, that can’t be fixed.”
She was still ranting as he moved her aside and mounted the creaky steps. A second voice had joined the first, and this one he recognized for its high, peevish tone.
Oliver Blaine was a traveling salesman who’d made Flora’s Boarding House his second home. Grant had to hand it to him; he could sell just about anything. He’d even sold Flora on the lie that he was an upstanding, godly man. But the sheriff knew better.
He’d never seen the mountain of a man that had Oliver pinned against the wall with one huge hand. In the other hand was half of a broken vase; the pink peonies it once held now surrounding the feet of both men.
Oliver, unable to turn his head, darted his eyes in Grant’s direction. His assailant didn’t acknowledge the intrusion at all. He was keeping his bloodshot focus on the smaller man dangling from the end of his meaty fist.
Had it been anyone else, Grant would have moved faster. But whatever trouble Oliver had gotten himself into, he likely deserved it. The sheriff moved through the room slowly until he was in the big man’s line of sight.
“Good morning, friend,” he said. “Want to tell me what’s going on here?” As he spoke, Grant picked up an overturned chair and put it back in its place in front of the hearth.
The man looked over at Grant, who casually opened his duster just enough to reveal the star pinned to the vest he wore underneath. He could see the big man focus on it, or try to. Flora hadn’t exaggerated; he was drunk as a skunk.
“This one cheated me at cards last night.” He pressed the shards of the broken vase into the skin of Oliver’s neck. The smaller man whimpered, cutting desperate eyes at the sheriff. “If you don’t believe me, just ask him!”
“Kind of hard to do with your hand around his neck like that.” Grant moved his hand to his hip, drawing the big man’s attention to the holstered pistol at his side. “I’m willing to listen to both sides, but for that to happen, I’m going to need both of you to be able to talk.”
The big man turned narrowed eyes back to Oliver and glared. For a split second, Grant thought he’d made a mistake—that the big hand might close hard enough to break Oliver’s skinny neck. But to the sheriff’s relief, the hand holding Oliver opened, sending him crashing to the floor.
Oliver landed in a seated position and sat splayed-legged and gasping as Grant reached out and took his assailant’s arm.
“You come over here,” he said, directing the drunken man to a chair. “What’s your name?”
“Bart, but some folks call me Big Bart.” He slurred the words.
“What brings you to Silver Run, Big Bart?”
“Whores and whiskey. I only got as far as the whiskey.”
It was as honest an answer as Grant had ever heard. “Go on,” he said.
“I bought a bottle at the saloon and had a glass.” He jerked a finger in Oliver’s direction. “I was on my way out when this one asked me if I wanted a quick game of poker. He told me he needed an extra man at his table and that he’d buy me a second bottle if I’d do him the honor.”
Grant suppressed a frown. He knew exactly where this was going. He glanced over at Oliver, who was rubbing his sore neck.
Oliver looked away as the big man resumed the story. “Next thing I knew, he was pouring me whiskey and taking my money. I’ve lost at cards before. I ain’t no sore loser, neither. But I noticed at the end of the game that he was fishing in his pocket. He had another deck in there. I pulled his hand and the cards fell out. All face cards.” He glared at Oliver. “He was cheating me.”
“Is that true, Oliver?”
“You gonna listen to a drunk you never met in your life or a man you know?” Oliver Blaine’s voice was raspy as he stood to point a shaking finger at Bart. “You saw what he was doing. I want this man arrested.”
“Hold on.” Grant turned back to Big Bart. “All face cards, you say?” He quirked a brow. “So, Oliver, if I went up to your room right now and went through your things, I wouldn’t find a deck like that in your belongings?”
“I don’t own anything like that.”
Grant sighed heavily. “I think I’ll check just the same. And if I find something you claim doesn’t exist, that’s going to call my own judgment into question, so there will be no way I can say for certain if this man laid hands on you. And I’ll just have to leave the two of you alone to sort out your differences.”
The Adam’s apple in Oliver’s skinny, bruised neck bobbed nervously as his watery eyes moved from man to man.
“Come on, Sheriff,” he wheedled. “You know me!”
“That’s the problem.” Grant stared Oliver down until the smaller man dropped his gaze. “What do you say, Mr. Blaine?”
Oliver Blaine rubbed his neck again, refusing to meet the gaze of either man. “I don’t want any trouble. If it means making peace, I’ll give back my winnings.”
“That’s mighty Christian of you, Oliver,” the sheriff said. “We’ll be waiting here for you to fetch this gentleman his money.” Grant turned his attention back to Bart. “That’ll give me and him time to talk.”
Grant waited until Oliver was up the stairs before addressing Bart.
“If I’d have shot you just now, I’d have been well with the law. But you look like a man who needs a bath more than a bullet. So once Oliver squares up with you, I’m taking you down to the jail. You’re gonna sleep in my cell until you’re sober. Then you’re gonna come back over here, pay Miss Flora for her busted belongings and the room you slept in, clean yourself up, and get out of town. And the next time you come back here, you stay sober. Understand?”
Bart was looking around the room, as if just realizing what all had happened. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah.”
Ten minutes later, Grant was leading Bart across the street to the jail. It wasn’t even ten o’clock and he was already wishing the day was over. It didn’t help that Flora had bristled when he told her that Bart was just going to jail long enough to sleep it off. She wanted him hung, she said. He countered by saying a church pianist shouldn’t be saying things like that.
“Damn crazy people.” Grant shouldered open the door of the jail and greeted his deputy, Harold, who rushed to open the cell door. Big Bart went down on the mattress like a lead shot.
“I won’t forget what you did for me today, Sheriff,” Bart slurred before passing out. “I’ll find a way to repay you.”
“Yeah, you do that,” Grant said.
“Boy, he’s going to have a headache,” Harold said.
“Yep.” Grant patted his deputy’s shoulder. “And you’ll be here to listen to him gripe about it.” As his deputy grumbled, Grant went out to finish his morning patrol of Silver Run.
His horse was half-asleep at the hitching post, one hind foot cocked at an angle.
“Wake up, Joe.” He nudged the animal’s shoulder and the gelding jerked its head up and slightly pinned its ears until seeming to realize it was his master who’d interrupted its nap.
“Good boy.” Grant praised the horse as it lowered his head so he could remove the rope halter he’d slipped on over the bridle. He left the lead halter and lead rope dangling from the post as he walked to the left side of the horse, gathered the reins, and vaulted into the saddle.
He was a tall man, but his soldier father had taught him to ride light, and Grant knew Joe, a former livery horse, appreciated that. He’d carried his share of passengers who’d thumped on his spine day after day, until the sheriff had bought him a year earlier. They’d been a team ever since, and Grant sometimes thought Joe liked patrolling the town as much as he did. He had learned the routine, too, much to Grant’s amusement. Even now, without the sheriff even guiding him, the horse turned and headed left toward the center of town.
It was dry. As Joe began to jog, his hooves pounded out puffs of red dust from the hard-packed ground. Grant glanced left and right as he rode, nodding to the men and tipping his hat at ladies bustling along the wooden walkway on the way to and from the mercantile. Silver Run was full of good people—mostly tradesmen and their families, although on auction days it could fill up with ranchers and farmers looking to buy and sell livestock. When the monthly payday came around, an influx of miners and ranchers made for rowdy moments.
“This way, buddy.” He laid the rein against the left side of Joe’s neck, and the horse turned right, jogging now down a narrow street that had been the town’s original Main Street until respectable businessmen had done well enough to build bigger and better stores on another street. This stretch was now referred to as Sinner’s Row. If there was trouble to be found in Silver Run on a Saturday morning beyond what he’d already dealt with, it would be here.
He recognized a few of the usual visitors sprawled out on the wooden porch of the saloon. A horse tethered to a post by a half-filled trough whinnied at Joe, who perked his ears and answered. Grant frowned. He disapproved when riders went straight to the saloon without taking their tired horses to the livery; these had probably been tied out all night.
He headed to the stable, where he directed the owner, Barney Simms, to retrieve the horses, groom and feed them, and charge the owners for his service.
“If they give you any grief, tell them it’s by order of the sheriff,” he said.
He lingered for a moment talking to the stable owner, but not for the quality of the conversation. Simms was a dullard who answered in grunts or single words.
No, Grant was stalling. It had become a habit, putting off checking on Rosie’s place at the end of Sinner’s Row. But it was his job, and he gave Joe a squeeze with his lower legs, sending the horse off at a trot.
For a whorehouse, Rosie’s place was larger and nicer than any other house in town, including the town parsonage. She kept the outside boards whitewashed, and served tea on the sunny porch on warm days. Rectangular wooden boxes filled with cascading flowers adorned every window, even though the lace curtains were always closed to shield whatever unspeakable carnal acts lurked behind them.
I thought you cared. I was wrong.
He could see the words in his mind as he stared up at the building. Joe shifted underneath him, as if reminding him that he had work to do, so Grant dismounted and led his horse to the hitching post.
“You stay put,” he said, knowing that Joe would do just that. Joe never wandered off when told to stay put.
The sounds of tinny piano music assaulted his ears as he entered. Two of Rosie’s girls were in the parlor, laughing as they banged away on the keys. They were pretty girls—one blonde and one brunette—who sported ringlets in their hair and tight, colorful bodices that lifted and displayed the generous swells of their breasts. They noticed Grant at the same time and grinned.
“Morning, Sheriff.” The blonde walked over, swaying her hips. One side of her painted mouth quirked in a grin as she picked up a feather fan from the table. She held it out, tickling his face with it. “You here to lay down the law? Because you can lay it on me if you want.”
“Cut it out, Sue Ellen. I’m just here making sure there’s no trouble.”
“Trouble? You won’t find anything here but comfort.” A voice like smoke and velvet drifted from a side room, and Grant turned to see a stunning redhead moving languidly in his direction from a second parlor.
“Mornin’, Rosie,” he said, tipping the brim of his hat.
“These girls bothering you?” she asked.
“No,” he said. “Just trying to sell me on the services.”
She put her hands on her hips and pouted. “Still not interested?”
Grant removed his hat and folded the brim in his hands. “I’m afraid not.”
“Girls, go on out of here.” Rosie’s sultry tone turned firm, and the girls scurried away.
The pretty madam hooked her arm through Grant’s elbow. “You know, Grant, it might do you good to distract yourself. It’d be on the house.”
“No, Rosie,” he said, unwilling to be unfaithful, even if it was just to a memory.
Rosie led him over to a table and sighed. “Then help yourself to some food,” she said, gesturing to a silver bowl piled high with plums, apples, and pears. It didn’t escape Grant’s notice that the colorful array matched the hue of the dresses Rosie’s girls wore. Fruits of temptation.
“No, thanks,” he said.
“At least have some water.” She smiled and lifted a silver pitcher and a glass. Grant watched as she filled it to the brim. This he would accept; it was shaping up to be a warm day, and Rosie’s place almost always seemed a few degrees hotter than the outside, owing to the scant apparel worn by her girls.
“I hate seeing you like this,” Rosie said as he drained his glass.
“Like what?” he asked, handing it back.
Rosie took it with a sigh, pondering her answer before looking back at him. When she resumed speaking, her voice was low. “Sad,” she said. “And don’t try and deny it, Grant Jackson.” Her next words were hesitant. “Maybe… maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to spend some time with one of my girls. A man needs to live again. He needs to…”
“For the last time, no.” There was a finality to the words that made them sound angrier than he’d intended. He softened the rest of the reply. “Nothing against you or your girls. It’s just not what I need.”
Rosie sighed heavily. “Forgive me, Grant. I guess I just want to fix it somehow. I still blame myself.”
Grant shook his head. “Don’t. You’re not to blame. If somebody’s going to believe the worst, they’ll find a way. If it hadn’t been what happened that night, it’d been something else.”
He paused. “How’s Ginger?”
Rosie offered a small smile. “She’s good. Got a letter from her last week. She’s settled in with her aunt. Got a job in a factory. She’s even seeing a nice young man who doesn’t know anything about her past.” She paused. “She mentioned you, Grant. She said she’ll be forever grateful for what you did.”
“That’s mighty nice. Thanks for letting me know.” He turned to walk away.
“You gonna try again?” Rosie called after him. “If you’re not going to enjoy my girls, you should at least try to find yourself a woman.”
He stopped in his tracks. “After two disappointments?” He donned his hat without looking back. “I don’t have it in me.” He glanced back and shot her a small smile. “Maybe I’m just not the marrying kind after all.”