She didn’t belong here. Mina Hobart belonged in a parlor, sipping tea with her lady friends and wearing taffeta or lace, not in the middle of the godforsaken wilderness, by God. And, she surely didn’t belong on the seat of a buckboard trying to handle two pair of ornery cattle. As he watched her pull back on the reins and the team continue on as if she hadn’t, he swore if her good-for-nothing husband weren’t dead already, he’d kill him. He had no business bringing a citified young woman on such an arduous trip.
She was a beauty, he’d give her that, particularly the mass of glossy red hair atop her head that had been kissed by long days spent in the sun and now glimmered with streaks of gold. Her once creamy complexion had warmed to a golden tan, which brought her eyes to an even lighter and more striking shade of blue. She’d also developed a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose. Her smile transformed her features from beautiful to breathtaking, although he hadn’t seen it often, usually reserved for the children of the train and the ever helpful Ben Jacobs. As he watched her unobserved, he allowed a slow perusal of her figure; although not an inch over five feet five and slender, she was womanly, with curves in all the right places. She was young, however, and naïve, not to mention her upper body strength was for shit, which was evident as she tried to rein in the cattle that were ignoring her inept attempts to get them to fall in line.
Jacobs had developed a fondness for her, or perhaps there was a bond as their situations were similar, both alone on the train with their losses. He’d seen him two days prior as he led Mina’s wagon into place behind his. Now he was doing his best to teach the girl. His attempts were almost too painful to watch because obviously, she wasn’t cutting it. And this was just driving the team. How in the hell was she going to yoke them, fit them with their bows and spacers, and tend them? What if a hoof broke or they needed new shoes. Damn! On top of illness, losing half the train, running short of supplies after having to camp out for two weeks to care for the afflicted, and burying folks daily, he didn’t need this aggravation.
“Haw!” Mina’s voice carried to him across the open field. Usually soft and refined, her voice contained a warm, almost lyrical quality suited more for a parlor than the prairie. It changed, becoming husky when riled, at which point her temper blazed as fiery as the hair on top of her head, particularly when sparring with her late husband. That had seemed a daily occurrence until he’d fallen ill little over a week ago. She’d tended him, despite their strife, although she’d been out of her element there too, turning to the other women on the train for advice.
“Right, Mina, right! Haw is for a left turn, girl. Gee means right.” Jacobs’ harried cry shook him abruptly from his reflections. He looked up to find the usually imperturbable man, who seemed to have boundless patience with the gal, had turned red-faced with frustration as the pretty tenderfoot sawed back on the left rein, turning the team and wagon toward the steep grade that led down to the creek. Weston could tell even his forbearance was beginning to crack. Without question, it was time for him to intervene.
“Whoa,” he called to the team as he hurried forward and grabbed the wooden yoke, bringing them easily to a halt. His eyes lifted to Jacobs. “You’ve been at it for two days, Ben.”
“Don’t I know it,” the harassed man said with a long drawn-out sigh, “and sadly, we’re no further along than when we started. She doesn’t have the strength to lead them from the yoke, and I fear driving them is hopeless.” His kind eyes shot to Mina as she squeaked in protest. “We’ll have to get one of the men to be her drover, I’m afraid. Or Bessie Tisdale, she’s the most skilled female left on the train.”
“I can do this,” Mina grumbled.
“I’ll take it from here, Ben. Thanks.”
With a friendly pat on her shoulder, Ben climbed down and plodded back to his own wagon, his team grazing on the tall grasses with the other livestock nearby. Weston’s eyes shifted to Mina Hobart and he almost laughed out loud at the disgruntled look on her face. Her finely arched brows were drawn together while her full kissable lips were curved down in a pretty pout. He could think of nothing besides wiping away the frown from her lips with open-mouthed kisses. The notion made his semi-hard cock—a persistent condition whenever she was near—twitch in his suddenly too-tight breeches.
“I was getting the hang of it, honestly.”
He did chuckle then. “Darlin’, you don’t know your right from your left and were confusing the cattle. Being able to move forward or bring them to stop isn’t enough. What will you do if they get spooked along the way, or have to go up a narrow incline, or ford a stream?” He walked to the bench, set the brake, and reached up for her. “Come on down here.”
Much to his surprise, she did as he asked without question, although she moved slowly, discernably downhearted. He grasped her waist and swung her down, holding on when her feet touched ground. “We’ll move your things into my wagon. You’ll ride with me when we head out tomorrow.”
“What about my wagon?”
“We don’t have any extra men to drive for you, Mina, and Bessie has her hands full with her brood. We’ll have to leave it.”
“Leave it!” she protested, her fingertips flying up to her throat to stroke her grandmother’s cameo, which was barely visible behind the high collar of her blouse. “It cost eighty dollars and the oxen almost four times that price.”
“We’ll add your team to mine, which will help pull the extra weight. The wagon, unfortunately, will have to stay behind.”
“Where will I sleep?”
“I will not!” Her objection was swift and firm. He could practically see her hair stand on end. If she were a bird, her feathers would be fully ruffled. “I may be a widow, but that doesn’t mean I’m of easy virtue. Of all the nerve!”
“Mina,” he barked, with a catch in his voice halfway between annoyance and amusement. Her bluster was quite entertaining actually, as was the startled look she cast his way, from use of her familiar name he suspected. “Before you interrupted, I was about to say you will have the wagon while I sleep in a bedroll underneath.”
“Oh.” A bit of the wind went out of her sails. “Still, what will the others think? Surely that isn’t proper either.”
“They’ll think I’m looking out for you, nothing more.”
She glanced up at him, skepticism visible in her light blue eyes for a very brief moment before they skidded away. Her averted gaze wasn’t quick enough for him to miss the sheen of tears that was gathering. Despite the boldness of her tongue, the trembling of her lower lip and her crestfallen face showed her vulnerability.
“I’m sorry, Mina. Life out here is hard for a man. For a woman alone, dang near impossible. Maybe it’s best if you head back east when we reach Fort Laramie. You can give me your proxy and I’ll be happy to see that your land is sold for a fair price and the proceeds sent on to you.”
She inhaled deeply and shook her head. “If I sold the oxen at Fort Laramie, it wouldn’t be enough to pay for a return trip back east. So, currently, I’m a few trinkets and coins shy of being destitute. Besides, there’s nothing for me back home.”
The sadness in her voice was palpable as he watched her fingers return to her throat. He deemed it a nervous habit at first, though now it seemed more. The pearly white and pinkish stone, which she’d risked burning herself to protect, had more than sentimental value, without a doubt. It seemed more like a charmed talisman. Whatever it brought, whether comfort or strength, it was significant enough that she kept it close, wearing it next to her skin beneath clothes covered by the dirt and dust of the Great Plains, rather than tucking it away for safekeeping in the wagon.
She went on speaking, her voice steadier. He could see the strain on her face, although she tried to put on a brave front.
“Elliott spent a considerable sum on the land, sight unseen. Two thousand dollars, to be specific. The land agent told Elliott that four dollars an acre was dirt cheap, and with the government giving settlers three hundred acres apiece, which won’t last forever, afterward the value will go up, possibly double.” She shrugged. “I’m not putting much stock in that prediction. Even if it only keeps its purchase value, the proceeds from the sale of eight hundred acres would help me get settled comfortably somewhere, whether Oregon, or possibly California. I hear it’s beautiful and places like San Francisco have reputable work for an unmarried woman.” Her head came up. “So you see, my only viable option is to see this through. Although, I thank you for your kind offer. With any luck, I’ll be out of your hair as soon as we hit Oregon City.”
He stared at her for a moment. Clearly, she had a head on her shoulders. He also found her determination admirable, no matter how imprudent he felt her decision was. A woman alone in Boston or New York City might very well be able to find a lawyer to help her accomplish the land deals that she planned, but in Oregon City, or even San Francisco, which were both still rough frontier towns, she’d be hard pressed to find an honest land agent, let alone an attorney. And, when it came to business dealings with a woman, well, she’d be lucky if either didn’t swindle her blind. She needed a man to see to her.
“How long to the trading post, do you think?” Her question interrupted his thoughts. “I’ve had to burn almost everything.”
“Not long, less than a week. Until then, I have plenty.”
She nodded, looking at the oxen. “I can’t manage—”
“I’ll tend to your cattle and set them to graze.” He lifted his chin toward the grove of trees by the nearby creek. “It’s been a trying day for you. Why don’t you rest a bit, before you start on supper?”
“Me?” Again, her eyes were wide. “You want me to cook for you?”
“That’s a fair trade-off, don’t you think? I care for your team and share my supplies in return for a hot supper?”
She looked up at him like he was off his nut or something.
“You can cook, right?”
She snorted. “According to Elliott, no.”
“I’m sure it isn’t as bad as he let on. It’s a requirement for a husband to complain about his wife’s cooking, so I hear.”
“Hmm,” she huffed with a little frown. “Maybe you should withhold judgment until you taste your supper. If you survive, you might want to renegotiate our deal.” With that said, she moved slowly toward the cool shade of the trees, exhaustion clear in her drooping shoulders.
With the wind kicking up, it took Mina over an hour to get the fire hot enough to cook supper. That’s when her nerves set in. She really had tried to learn how to cook over the course of the trip, but despite her best efforts everything had either been raw in the middle or burned to a crisp on the outside; sometimes it was both at the same time. Elliott’s jibes and insults hadn’t helped; in fact, they had only made her more nervous and her cooking worse, if that were possible. Finally, in disgust at her lack of skill and fear that they’d run out of supplies, he’d taken over the chore. It wasn’t without antipathy, though, and he hadn’t let her forget, nor was it the end of his constant attacks on her intelligence.
Soon, Mr. Carr would find out how useless she really was. Despite her brave talk, she knew she was in over her head and needed someone to help her navigate this new world. She’d never cooked, cleaned dishes, churned butter, or washed her clothes in a creek. For twenty years, she’d had servants who tended to her needs and she hadn’t given it a thought. She also had a driver who took her wherever she needed to go in a carriage with horses that were tended by others, certainly not her. Never, in all her born days, had she imagined that she would ever need the skill to drive a wagon or yoke an ox. Too late, she realized that although she’d grown up in a loveless home, she’d been pampered and well taken care of.
Determined, she set the water to boiling for coffee as she’d seen Elliott do morning and night, and rooted through her supplies to come up with something reasonably easy to prepare that would satisfy the hunger of a man Weston Carr’s size. She was well-educated and well-read, she told herself, so cooking over an open fire shouldn’t be all that difficult.
Thirty minutes later, the coffee was done, the bacon was crisp—hopefully, not too much so because the fire had gotten really hot and flared up on her—and the cornbread was nearly done, the crust sizzling in the bacon fat she used for grease.
Dusty boots appeared in her periphery and she glanced up into smiling midnight blue eyes. He’d come up alongside her carrying a platter full of some kind of fish, already gutted and filleted, she noticed with the utmost relief.
“I had a bit of luck, so we can have fish for dinner.” He took off his hat, wiping his brow with his sleeve as he settled against the log beside her. She watched as he eyed the bacon and corncake frying in the pan. His expression was dubious as he filched a rasher of bacon from the plate where she’d set it to cool and popped it in his mouth, yet, he didn’t say a word. He couldn’t, Mina soon realized. He was too busy choking, spitting it out, and coughing to speak.
She frowned. “The wind caused a flare-up. It got overdone, I suppose.”
“Too much salt,” he choked. “Did you salt the bacon?”
“Wasn’t I supposed to?”
He shook his head, continuing to cough as he reached for the coffeepot. He upended the spout and waited. Frowning, he glanced her way as nothing came out. Lifting the lid, he peered inside.
“Dang, woman,” he rasped. “It’s boiled away to nothing but sludge. How much coffee did you put in the pot? And how long did you set it to boil for that matter?”
Stung by yet another culinary failure, with Weston comparing her coffee to sludge as Elliot had, Mina bristled. “I warned you.”
He didn’t respond, too busy guzzling water from his canteen. Once he had stopped wheezing and choking, he grabbed the towel she’d been using for a hot pad and pulled the skillet out of the fire. He flipped the cake over, expecting it to fall on the plate he held. He waited, shaking it a bit to get it to come out, though nothing happened. Taking up a wooden spoon, he banged on the back of the skillet. Still, nothing. He ended up scooping it out with the spoon, the overcooked, dry cornbread crumbling and falling apart on top while the thick black crust adhered to the bottom of the pan.
“Jo-fire, you did warn me, but darlin’, I reckoned you were kidding.” He chuckled as he looked at her in amazement. “My kid sister was cooking up a storm over a campfire by the time she was ten.”
Humiliated and hurt, she pushed to her feet. “Well, it’s a sorry shame she isn’t here to do it now, then isn’t it.”
“I was teasing, Mina. Sit back down.”
“No, I’m going for a walk.”
“No,” he echoed back, reaching up and grabbing her hand, his tone firm, “you’re not.”
“Yes, I am.” She twisted her arm and broke free of his hold.
Through narrowed eyes, he looked up at her and said in a stern tone, “It’s nearly dark and I don’t want you wandering off. I’ll clean the skillet and show you how to fry up the fish. It won’t take long at all.”
He wasn’t yelling or calling her names as Elliott had, but the sting of her late husband’s abuse was too fresh and this a very near reminder.
“I’ve suddenly lost my appetite, for both the food and the company,” she announced as she turned and stomped away.
“Mina.” The low tone of his voice was a warning, but she ignored it. “Come back here, now.”
Hurriedly, she rushed past the circle of wagons and headed toward a small copse of trees by the river, deciding it was best to cool off both her body and her temper before going back to camp.
When she was shy of her goal by a few feet, a large hand caught her arm and spun her around.
“I can see I didn’t make myself clear, little lady, when I told you I expect you to do as I say, when I say. I especially don’t like being ignored when I give an order.”
She glared up at him, still feeling the bite of his words, no matter if they were said in teasing. In her pique, she foolishly disregarded the darkening of his eyes, the hard line of his mouth, and the tense set of his broad shoulders.
“I beg your pardon,” she snapped, not the least bit contrite. “You may have appointed yourself my keeper, but you are neither my husband nor my father. Furthermore, I’m a grown woman who doesn’t need to be told what to do. I also don’t take kindly to orders and insults, particularly those given by an insensitive braying jackass.” Mina yanked on her arm, but this time his fingers held firm. “I was going to wash up before bed, if you don’t mind.”
“As a matter of fact, I do mind.” She blinked in surprise as he leaned down and put his face next to hers. “I mind a woman stomping off in a huff in the dark, unescorted. I mind a woman ignoring orders for her safety. I mind having to babysit a greenhorn tenderfoot who doesn’t know better than to take off by herself in the middle of Indian Territory. And, I mind being saddled with a brat to play daddy to for another eighteen hundred miles, so we are going to nip this behavior in the bud, here and now.” He pulled her along toward the trees.
“Wait. Where are you taking me?”
“You wanted to run off? Fine. The trees will be the perfect place for me to teach you a little lesson on how things will be now that you’re under my protection.”
He stopped by an uprooted tree and without releasing her, seated himself on the fallen trunk. The next instant, her belly hit his hard thighs and her view of the world inverted, what she could see of it, that is, through the hem of her skirt, which was suddenly flung over her head. She yelped as a sharp smack landed on her upraised bottom. Before her brain could formulate words to lodge a protest, his hand fell again, and again. The sting was breathtaking and in her shock, it was all she could do to sputter unintelligible sounds of dissent. Relentlessly, his hard, broad hand fell on her vulnerable bottom, her thin drawers and one petticoat providing little barrier to the crack of his palm.
“Stop!” she gasped, struggling against his hold. The iron band around her waist didn’t give an inch, only tightened.
“I’m not stopping until I whup some sense into your foolish, risk-taking, city-girl head.”
Mina kicked and pushed with her hands against his unforgiving hold to no avail. Another ten swats, maybe as many as twenty fell before she exhausted herself against his hold and lay unmoving over his lap. Tears of humiliation had long since welled up in her eyes and spilled over.
It was at that point he ceased the spanking. The next moment she found herself upright and seated on one of his hard thighs. He grasped her chin and tilted her face up to his. His thumb swept over her cheeks, collecting the tears that had fallen, whisking them away. It was a tender gesture she hadn’t expected. Never having received such consideration before, particularly on top of a spanking, her head whirled in confusion.
“Have I made it clear who’s in charge here?” His tone was stern, though his anger seemed lessened considerably.
She nodded, although that didn’t seem to satisfy.
“Say it, Mina. Whose orders do you follow from here on out?”
“Yours, sir,” she whispered, the burn in her bottom fresh enough to contain any consideration of a sharp-tongued response.
“That’s right. As I said, Mina, I’ll protect you with my life, but you have to help me do that by following the rules.” He set her on her feet and stood. With his hands on her shoulders, he bent and placed a gentle kiss on her forehead. “I don’t want to be harsh with you, Mina; nonetheless, you can expect more of the same for any future defiance. Is that also clear?”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. Elliott called my coffee sludge, too.” Her voice cracked on the last few words, then to her horror, she burst into wails loud enough to carry across the prairie and cause a buffalo stampede.
“Darlin’,” he murmured, pulling her into his chest. “I didn’t know. I shouldn’t have teased.”
Feeling alone and despairing, she clung to him, her hands fisting in his shirt. He held her, stroking her back and whispering softly not to fret until her tears finally slowed. His hands cupped her cheeks and tilted her face up to his, wiping her tears away again as he did so. “We need to learn to get along, Mina. Unfortunately, your fuse is short.”
“Wait, let me finish. You’re very sensitive and tend to fly off the handle without hearing things through. I on the other hand have a slow burning fuse, except when my directives are ignored and in the face of outright defiance. Knowing that, can we move forward with more consideration of the other?”
Sniffling, she nodded. “I promise to try, Mr. Carr, although I really am a deplorable cook.”
“I’ll teach you and won’t tease any more now that I know that’s a sore spot. And, I think you can drop all the mister business. My name is Weston.”
She offered him a tremulous smile; even after their blowup, he was being kind and caring, which was another thing she was unused to. He returned her smile, his growing into a grin, his perfect white teeth gleaming in the moonlight. She couldn’t help lowering her gaze and watching. Truly, he had a beautiful mouth.
The next thing she knew, she was wrapped in his arms and his lips met hers. Firmly, his mouth brushed over hers and she swore… Was that his tongue stroking along her lower lip? Robbed of breath, her knees went weak. Too soon, he lifted his head.
“Sorry, darlin’,” he said softly, sounding a bit breathless himself. “The way you were looking at my mouth, like you wanted a taste, I couldn’t help but oblige.”
Embarrassed, she stiffened and pulled away, thankful for the cover of darkness, knowing at that moment that the color of her face surely matched the red tint of her hair.
He let her go, but not very far. “Now that the excitement is over, let’s go see about those fish.”
With a hand on her lower back, he began to lead her back to the camp and froze. She glanced up at him in question. Upon seeing him staring up ahead, her eyes followed. Heat of embarrassment licked up her neck and spread across her face when she saw nearly the entire wagon train had gathered nearby. Some of the women’s mouths were gaped open, others were frowning in obvious disapproval; most of the men, except for the reverend, were smothering grins and laughter, all without a doubt having witnessed her punishment and the kiss that followed.
Mina’s first inclination was to flee and hide for a month of Sundays. However, the strong arm that held firm to her waist wouldn’t allow her to move from his side.
“The show’s over folks; head on back to camp.” He then led Mina past them as if they hadn’t seen her with her skirt over her head and his hand on her behind or his tongue on her lips. Whispers and undertones followed in their wake.
“He uncovered her drawers, did you see?”
“A widow no more than a few days. Tsk, tsk, tsk.”
“Her husband not cold in the ground and she’s carrying on with another.”
She choked at the condemnation and tried to pull free of his grasp.
“Ignore it,” Weston said in a low voice, not stopping.
“Impossible, they saw my petticoats, and your hand…”
“I’m sure everyone has witnessed a spanking before.”
“Not one given to a new widow by the wagon master, surely! I’m humiliated, my reputation in shreds, and it’s all your fault.”
“There is no fault here. It’s no one’s business except ours what went on, and if you don’t make a fuss over it, this will blow over in no time.”
Despite his conviction, Mina knew better.
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