The interior of the stage was stifling as it waited for another passenger. I fanned myself with my hand, but the August heat was not diminished by the shade the ceiling provided. The only reprieve was the breeze that stirred once the horses began to move. It seemed I would ride to Carver Junction alone and that suited me fine. The leather flaps were rolled up and the wind cooled my damp skin. Sweat trickled down between my breasts. I undid a few buttons at the top of my blouse. Just that little bit was helpful.
Next, I tugged at my long skirt and pulled it up over my knees. Ah, bliss! It was markedly cooler this way. Not very modest or the least bit ladylike, but no one could see me.
We’d traveled less than a minute when the stage came to an abrupt halt. I would have slid onto the dirty floor if I hadn’t braced my foot against the facing bench seat. A man
appeared in the window.
“Miss Lenox. This is a surprise,” the voice said. With the sun behind him, his face was in shadow beneath the brim of his hat and I couldn’t tell who he was, but I knew that voice. The hair at the back of my neck rose at the dark rasp.
I realized while I couldn’t see him, he most certainly could see me. I shoved the hem of my skirt back down and began fiddling with the open buttons at my neck in mortification.
The door opened and he climbed inside, folding his large frame to keep from bumping his head. Removing his hat, he glanced at me, a wide grin on his face. “No need to right yourself for my benefit. I assure you, I will enjoy the trip so much more if you don’t.”
My mouth fell open at the sight of Garrison Lee. What was he doing here? I asked him as much. He arched his brow at my less than conciliatory tone, and then settled himself across from me. The stage lumbered into motion.
“I’m going to Carver Junction, the same as you, sugarplum,” he replied.
“Yes, but why?” I huffed. While the very sight of him had my heart rate galloping faster than the horses pulling the stage, he was going to ruin everything.
“To see a man about a horse.”
I didn’t believe that reason for a minute. “Really?”
“I’m taking the stage there and hopefully, if I am satisfied, riding the animal home. You look as if you doubt me.”
I pursed my lips.
“I do run a horse ranch.”
His bent knees bumped into mine when the stage lurched in a deep rut. I shifted so we would not touch, under the guise of settling into our journey. He grinned at my action and I hated that that dratted dimple formed in his right cheek. How could the man be so handsome, so ruggedly appealing while I wanted to hurl myself across the small distance between us and strangle him?
A crease ringed his hair where his hat had been, and I wanted to run my fingers through the dark locks to remove it. Then I’d run my hands down his cheeks to feel the rasp of his whiskers. He’d trained my body to respond to his very presence—his voice, even his manly scent. We’d kissed—oh, we’d most definitely kissed—and done a few other unseemly things in the few months he’d been calling on me. Just thinking of them made me feel warm all over.
I also wanted to kick him in the shin for interfering in my plans.
“You never mentioned you were making a trip when I saw you the other night,” he countered.
I sniffed. “I didn’t see reason.”
“I had my tongue in your mouth and my hand on your breast. That gives me reason, sugarplum.”
“I am not your sugarplum,” I snapped. The breeze loosened a curl from its pins and I batted it off my face. “And your hand was not on my breast, it was on my dress.”
We’d been courting since the spring, even though we’d known each other since the schoolroom. He’d even recently asked me to marry him, which I’d quickly refused. He didn’t back away as I’d expected, instead continued his pursuit with more vim than before. Even with my negative response, he’d kissed me… and I’d let him. With every visit, with every quiet ride, he’d asked for my hand again and kissed me some more… and I’d let him again and again. He’d even placed his hands upon my person, but only over my dress. I may have made it seem to be of no importance, but it was everything. His touch, his attentions, his unwavering interest was what made me breathe. I just couldn’t let him know that.
“We’re alone for the next two hours and you want to argue over hand placement?” He slid down the seat an inch or two, settling in, his legs widening, most likely trying to find comfort in the confined space. “I can think of much more enjoyable ways to pass the time.”
“We aren’t married, Garrison.”
He sighed. “I have tried, on three occasions, to rectify that. You know good and well I won’t fuck you until we are wed. That does not mean we can’t play a bit.”
I pursed my lips, but beneath my corset, my nipples tightened.
“Why are you going to Carver Junction?” he repeated. “Are you meeting a man?”
My eyes widened. I hadn’t considered what he thought my reason for travel was.
“No.” Well, sort of. I was, in fact, going to play Poker and with every game to date, I had been the sole female. No one at home need know about my clandestine activities and neither did Garrison. “I am visiting my friend Opal. I will spend the night and return tomorrow.”
“Why have I never heard of her?”
“I don’t tell you everything, Garrison,” I snipped.
“I am well aware of that,” he muttered. “That is why I am questioning you now. What’s her family name?”
“Banks.” That was the first name that came into my head.
He eyed me, but I was well versed in bluffing. Garrison, though, seemed to be the one man who could see even through that. He was also the only man I could ever love, but I’d never tell him. I’d never let it show either, for only then would he see the real me. Beneath all the bickering and banter I struggled. I hurt and once he discovered the truth, he wouldn’t want me any longer. I’d rather have him this way, grumpy, than not at all. I took a deep breath and tilted up my chin.
“She will meet the stage?”
I shrugged and tugged at my cuff. “Perhaps, but if not, it is a short walk to her home.”
“Miss Trudy allowed you to travel unaccompanied?”
Miss Trudy was one of my adoptive mothers. She, along with her sister Esther, had adopted me, along with seven other orphaned girls after the Great Chicago Fire. We’d moved west as a family and settled into ranch life. After owning a Chicago brothel, both women found solace and peace in the Montana Territory. I just wanted to escape the quiet, rural life for the big city and the winnings from my Poker playing would afford me that. Unfortunately, Garrison was putting a damper on that plan, in more ways than one.
“Of course. It is only one stage stop.”
He sighed deeply then ran his hand over his face. “You are the most vexing person I have ever met. I don’t know why you won’t just marry me already.”
“I’ve known you since I was five years old. We’ve hated each other since that fateful moment when you shoved snow down the front of my coat,” I grumbled.
He shrugged. “I wanted to get your attention.”
“I was five. You were much older.” I pointed my finger at him. “You should have been nice.”
“Nice? You put mud in my hot chocolate.” He frowned and then laughed at the memory.
I remembered that. I’d done it because I’d wanted to claim his attention. Looking back, the snowball was the typical response of an eleven-year-old boy.
“You dipped my braids in ink,” I told him, prompting him to his continued indiscretions.
Our history had not been one of friendship, more like one-upmanship. It had been childish prank after childish prank, but things had changed as we got older.
It was his turn to point. “You told Esther Marin I liked her. She was fifteen.”
“I was twenty-two! I would never dally with a girl of that age.”
I’d also been fifteen then, and he hadn’t dallied with me either. Only winked at me a time or two to get my goat. Now, though, I wasn’t a girl anymore and I longed for his attentions, even while I was pushing him away.
“Well, she liked you,” I replied grumpily.
“She’s cross eyed!”
I humphed. “She needed all the help she could get.”
“She’s married to Herbert Barnes and has two children. She’s not the one that needs help.”
I narrowed my eyes at his barb. I was twenty-two and unwed.
“You cut off the back of my skirt so my drawers showed! You ruined me for all the boys in town.”
“That is a sight I will never forget. I liked the lace edging.”
I groaned. I hadn’t been able to show my face in town for a month after that.
“If it ruined you for all those boys, then good.” He nodded his head. “It did its job.”
I frowned. “What is that supposed to mean?”
He ignored my question, stroked his fingers over his jaw. “Yet through all of that, you kissed me in the coat room at the fall dance.”
“You dared me.” I crossed my arms over my chest and his gaze dropped to my bosom.
“And see where that got me,” he grumbled. “A woman who refuses to marry me.”
We were quiet for a few minutes as he watched the prairie through the open window. I stared at his profile—his strong brow, square jaw and wayward dark hair. He was a much better view.
“Where did you meet Opal?” he asked.
He was like a dog with a bone, not giving up. Either we needed to arrive at Carver Junction or I needed to turn his thoughts elsewhere. I was a proficient liar, but not good enough to withstand his scrutiny for the remainder of the journey.
“You’re right. Why bicker when we could be doing much more enjoyable things?”
That got his attention. He whipped his head around to look at me.
“You told me you wouldn’t… um, well—” I glanced down at my lap, then back at him through lowered lashes. “You said you wouldn’t fuck me unless we were wed.”
By uttering that crude word, I’d certainly turned his thoughts away from the non-existent Opal Banks. I’d never said it before and the surprise of it showed on his face. That quickly changed. His gaze turned dark and roved over my body. He licked his lips and his eyelids lowered. There was something almost… hot about that look.
“That’s right,” he replied, his voice much deeper than just a few minutes ago.
“What exactly would you do to me?”