Unedited Excerpt from:
Copyright © Sarah McCarty 2017
All rights reserved
“I don’t need help rinsing out my mouth,” Josie muttered.
“Maybe I don’t want to.”
She took a sip, rinsed and spat. Half her bun was straggling around her shoulders in a dark, sleek fall. “I’m trying not to be so obedient.”
Interesting. “What have you got against obedience?”
“It’s not part of my plan.”
Luke humored her. “I see.”
She seemed oblivious to the fact that she was half naked in his arms. He took advantage of the position to work on the buttons of her dress. The bottom seven were hopeless—the dress was cut to go over the corset, which held her in—but when he got to her rib cage they fastened.
“Here’s the balm,” Tia interrupted, handing him a small pottery jar.
He pulled the cork out and set it on the mattress. He motioned with the jar. “You’re going to have to lift your hair for this.”
With one hand Josie held her dress against her chest, and with the other she lifted her hair. It was all very cooperative for someone dead set against obedience.
Dipping his fingers in the cool ointment, he smoothed the cream on her neck. She sighed and let him.
“What? No maidenly protests?” Luke asked.
“Always you are contrary,” he heard Tia mutter.
Josie shook her head. “I’m saving them until I have the energy to scream them.”
He chuckled. She suddenly clutched the side of the wagon.
“Are you going to be sick again?” he asked.
She swallowed twice before answering, “I haven’t decided yet.”
“If there’s an option, my vote’s for no.”
“I’ll bear it in mind,” she muttered.
He smiled as he handed the jar and cork to Tia and went back to buttoning Josie’s dress. The thin beige muslin of her camisole was transparent where it stuck to her skin, giving him peek-a-boo glimpses of soft skin everything male in him craved to explore. For sure she was a lush little thing.
He fastened the final button at her neck. “There. You’re done.”
He helped her down, avoiding the vomit. Her skirts hung limply without the support of the petticoats.
Standing, she reached behind her and clutched at the unbuttoned section at the small of her back. “Not quite.”
“I’ve got a plan for that.”
“You always have plans.”
She didn’t sound pleased about it. He shrugged. “I believe in being prepared.”
From around the side of the wagon, Zach called, “If the photographer is better, we need to resume.”
“Company coming?” Luke called back, keeping the concern out of his query. They were ill defended for a Comanche attack.
“It does not seem so,” Zach answered. “Lobo is keeping an eye on them.”
“So we have time.”
He heard the snap of leather against leather. Zach was impatient. “Not if we wish to avoid others who may be on the move. There is no cover here.”
He knew that. “True enough.”
“So if you could encourage the photographer…”
“I’ll work on it.”
“I have a name,” Josie muttered.
“Tell him that.” Luke waved in Zach’s direction.
He raised a brow. “Don’t tell me Mrs. Not-So-Obedient is afraid…”
She shot him a look that spoke volumes.
He grinned. “Not as afraid of him as you are of getting back in that wagon, I bet.”
He smiled again. She did amuse him. He plopped her bonnet on her head. “Don’t worry. I’ve got a plan for that, too.”
She looked at him and raised her brows. Beneath the misery in her expression, he caught a flicker of hope. “You might just be my hero.”
“Hold on to that thought.”
Tia rolled her eyes and snorted. “I will return to my wagon while you sort this out.”
Josie watched her go. “I don’t think I want to be sorted.”
Luke whistled. “Too late to take a stand on that now. I’m married to the thought of being a hero.”
“You don’t strike me as the marrying kind,” she muttered under her breath, straightening the ugly bonnet.
Chico came strolling around the wagon. Tossing his head, he nickered a greeting. Luke gathered up the reins and drew him up.
“Oh no.” Josie plastered herself back against the wagon and shook her head as comprehension dawned. “I don’t ride.”
“Who said anything about riding?” Riding took effort. He wasn’t planning on her working up to even a deep breath. Mounting, he turned the horse until he was perpendicular to where Josie stood watching with a mixture of horror and fascination. Any color she’d regained faded away as he scooted back behind the saddle. The sunburn stood out in garish streaks on her cheeks. Holding out his hand, he beckoned her closer.
He cocked his head to the side. “Chico doesn’t sway like the wagon.”
She pressed against the tailgate. “I don’t like horses.”
An idiot could see that. Tipping his hat back, he asked, “How much do you like Comanche?”
That did the trick. She looked around as if warriors lurked behind every anthill. He mentally shook his head. As if he’d permit any threat to get that close. Reluctantly, she placed her hand in his and allowed him to draw her onto saddle. Her skirts tangled around her legs as she dangled awkwardly.
“Throw your leg over the saddle horn,” he grunted as he strained to hold her high enough and keep Chico from prancing his displeasure with the unbalanced weight.
“We’re too high.”
She grabbed the horn as Chico sidestepped. “Says you!”
“A horse is your best friend out here.”
Clinging to the horn, she gasped. “Is he yours?”
“That explains a lot.”
He chuckled. “You’ve got sass, I’ll give you that. Now fix your skirts unless you want to ride with them cutting off your blood supply.”
“I’d prefer not to ride at all.”
Pulling her up and back against him, he waited for her to get the folds of material arranged to her liking before settling her back against him with improper closeness. She stiffened at the proximity, but he just grinned and urged Chico forward. Her hips rocked pleasingly against him as she clung to the horn.
“This isn’t decent,” she whispered.
At least her color was back. “But it is practical.”
“I’m not a fan of practical.”
He spread his fingers over her stomach, and clucked his tongue as Chico stopped to nose the grain bucket tied to Tia and Ed’s wagon. “Not a fan of obedience or practical.” He shook his head and smiled. “I knew you were going to be trouble.”
If she didn’t feel so sick, Josie might have protested Luke’s high-handedness. At the very least, been horrified at the enforced intimacy of her transport, but her sense of proper was otherwise distracted. She’d never ridden a horse before. It was not the liberating experience she’d attempted to convince herself it could be. In fact, it was terrifying.
On horseback she sat much higher than in the wagon and she couldn’t get her mind off the fact it was a long way—maybe a neck-breakingly long way—to the ground. Combine that with the potential that Chico might object to her presence on his back and she had good reason to be nervous. If he reared or bucked she’d go flying. As if hearing her worry, Chico tossed his head and pranced. She grabbed the saddle horn.
Luke’s arm tightened around her waist. “I’ve got you.”
“Wonderful, but who’s got him?”
“I’ve got him, too.”
All he had when it came to the horse was the reins.
She bit her tongue on a retort. For her safety, she didn’t need him distracted by an argument.
“Nothing to say to that?” he asked.
“What do you want me to say? You’re holding two pieces of leather and calling it security. Clearly you’re delusional.”
She expected anything but his bark of laughter.
“I’ve been with Chico a long time. We understand each other.”
“He doesn’t like me up here. I can tell.”
“He’s not used to riding double.”
“Which is what concerns me.”
“He trusts me.”
He said it as if it was the final word on the subject. “What if I don’t trust you?”
The confidence in that statement irked her. “What makes you so sure?”
“I’m very trustworthy. Ask Tia.” He urged Chico forward until they were even with the front of Tia’s wagon. Ed cocked an eyebrow at them. Josie cringed in embarrassment.
“Am I trustworthy, Tia?” Luke asked.
The chuckle Josie felt vibrating along her back was also present in Luke’s voice. “There you go. Chico trusts me. Tia trusts me. All the confirmation you need.”
“Some things a woman just likes to decide for herself.”
He wasn’t daunted. “And trusting me is one of them?”
“All right. I’ll give you time.”
She knew better than to leave such things open ended. “How much?”
“We’ve got another two hours until lunch. I’ll check with you then and see how you feel.”
Two hours? She clutched the horn again. She didn’t know if she could handle two hours. The nausea was settling and the light-headedness was fading, but all that did was make her more aware of the muscled forearm settled across her stomach and the strong chest cradling her back. The scent of leather, horse and Luke combined, filling her nostrils. She wanted to hate it, position it as something to resent, but the truth was he smelled and felt pretty darn good. Like the first exhilarating touch of fall after the draining heat of summer. Crisp, cool and inspiring.
It was easy to imagine him walking to the door at the end of a long day, bringing that certain excitement with him. She could imagine meeting him halfway, sliding her hands over his hard chest and around his neck, kissing him hello, breathing in his answer, letting his strength surround her. It was too easy to imagine him sitting down at the supper table, filling the room with his presence and masculine scent. Turning the house into a home.
As much as she loved the concept of happily-ever-after when she looked at Hester and Uncle Jarl and the happiness they embraced, when it came to marriage, her mother had always told her a woman had to be practical. Monotony and submission were a cheap price to pay for security.
She wasn’t sure she wanted security all that much. She’d been trapped in monotony all her life, trying to be so good, so quiet, so obedient, that people wouldn’t remember that she didn’t have a father like everybody else. That her mother lived alone in a shame that Josie shared. That they wouldn’t think about all the hours she spent on her knees in church repenting for sins she’d never committed. That they wouldn’t see her.
“You’ve gone quiet on me.” Luke interrupted her thoughts.
“I wasn’t aware you wanted me to talk.”
“It’d be nice. After all, we’re sharing a horse.”
“Not by my request.”
“You didn’t leave me many options, what with needing your modesty protected.”
“I could have ridden with Stefano.”
His no was terse and to the point.
She had to ask. “What’s wrong with Stefano?”
“He’s Zach’s cousin. The Lopez men are good men, but womanizers to the last.”
“And you’re not?”
His chin rested on top of her head, squashing her bonnet flat. “I just got done proving I’m trustworthy.”
She pushed the bonnet back off her face. “That’s not an answer.”
“You’re mighty feisty for somebody who wouldn’t say boo to a ghost a few hours ago.”
She was, she realized. There was something liberating about not having to look at the person to whom she was speaking. She could just stare into space, say what was on her mind and not see their reaction. She kind of liked it.
“I’m sure Stefano is safe.”
From the wagon, Ed snorted and Tia chuckled. Josie noticed Luke didn’t tell her to be quiet. She supposed he wouldn’t dare. From what she’d observed, the men of Hell’s Eight revered Tia. A little part of her was jealous. She’d never known the sense of safety that came from somebody loving her like that. The love Tia and the men gave each other was an unconditional love. Well, maybe not unconditional, but they shared the same values, the same strengths, the same code of honor, so the conditions were easy to meet.
It was the opposite of her relationship with her mother. She’d never done one thing to make her mother think that she was a whore, but it was her mother’s overriding concern that she would become one. Because she was born out of wedlock. Because of that, Josie had to work harder, prove herself. If her mother saw her right now, she’d point her finger and yell, “Jezebel.”
Josie couldn’t help it. The thought amused her. Despite all her mother’s precautions and her own efforts, she was sitting on a man’s lap in a state of total dishabille.
Luke leaned over her shoulder and pulled the bonnet back. “You’re smiling.”
“I do that sometimes.”
“I like it.”
The way he said it in that deep drawl, the timbre resonating with sexual meaning, so serious when there was usually an edge of banter to his tone, made her shiver. There was no hope he didn’t feel it, either, pressed up against her as he was.
“I like that, too.”
And that fast her breath caught and her skin sensitized. Through the gap in the back of her dress she imagined she could feel the heat of his skin, a sensual connection through which his energy seeped, flowing from him to her and back again. The urge to squirm began deep inside.
Good grief. She clutched the horn for a whole different reason. She couldn’t squirm, not for this man.
His hands covered hers. His palms were calloused and rough. They felt the way she’d always imagined a man’s hands should feel. How would they feel against her body? Just thinking about it made her shiver.
“I was serious when I said you could trust me.” His tone was softer without the banter. “I won’t hurt you, Josie.”
That wasn’t a promise anyone could keep, but she went along with it. Maybe just to see how far he would take it. She glanced over her shoulder.
“A Hell’s Eight promise?”
His head cocked to the side, casting half his face in shadow. Darkness and light. “What do you know about a Hell’s Eight Promise?”
“I’ve heard a body can take them to the bank.”
“That’s true, but that wasn’t a Hell’s Eight promise. That one was pure Luke Bellen.”