CULLEN READ THE same paragraph in Homer’s Odyssey a dozen times before slamming the book shut and tossing it on the table. After returning from nightly rounds, he’d been sitting in a rocker by the campfire. If he wanted a distraction, he would have to look elsewhere. Music from the Camerons’s hadn’t lured him away and neither had an invitation from John and Sarah to stop by for coffee. Henry had accepted, but Cullen sent his regrets. He wasn’t up to socializing, especially if he might run into Kit. Even though he’d forbidden her to leave her wagon, he wasn’t sure how much credence, if any, the woman gave his orders.
Henry moseyed into camp carrying a plate of cookies. “Sarah sent these. Kit made them this morning.” He poked Cullen with the edge of the tin dish. “I told Sarah you were rocking and moping. She said you needed nourishment for all the thinking you were doing. You plan to mope the rest of the evening?”
Cullen ignored the mouth-watering scent of cinnamon and pushed the plate away. A cookie dropped into his lap. He glared at it, expecting it to snap at him. “I’m not moping.”
“You’re a lying son-of-a-bitch.”
“Mind your own business, old man.”
Henry set the cookies on top of the stack of books beside Cullen’s chair. “Everything that happens on this wagon train is my business. You think all you need to learn you can get from a book. I’m here to tell you, if you don’t have enough sense to get in out of the rain what you learned in them books don’t do no good.”
Cullen glared at him. “You’re crazy, you know that?”
“You’re the one who insisted the widow come on this trip. Remember? She saved that boy’s life today, and you show gratitude by forcing her to stay in her wagon going on ten hours now. Let her out. If your mind’s not set to doing what’s right, I will.”
Cullen let loose a long sigh. “I’ll let her out in the morning.”
Henry fixed a gaze that wrinkled his forehead. “The hell you will.” He yanked the cookie plate out of Cullen’s reach and headed off in the direction of Kit’s wagon.
Cullen picked the cookie off his lap and took a bite. “Come back. Never seen you move so fast on those saddle-bowed legs.”
Henry stopped in mid-stride. “You get off your ass and go now, or my next step won’t have a turn-around.”
“I’ll do it, but I want to ask you something first.”
“If you’re just working up spit for your whistle, I’m not listening.”
“What do you think about what she did today? Ever seen a woman do anything like that?”
“The water part or the after part?”
“Both, I reckon,” Cullen said.
“Seen women do men’s work, but Kit’s different.” He wagged his finger like the tail on a hunting dog that just caught a stump-eared squirrel. “One thing’s for sure. She’s the prettiest, sweetest, kindest little missy I’ve ever met, and if I wasn’t old enough to be her pa, I‘d asked her to be my wife.”
Cullen lurched from his chair, toppling it over. “You’re right. You are too old.”
Henry grabbed Cullen’s arm. “You hurt that girl and you’ll answer to me.”
“Then you’d best go talk to her because I’m not sure I can keep from strangling her.”
Henry dropped his grip, chuckling. “Just keep your damn hands tucked in your suspenders.”
Cullen had been aroused since carrying the shivering woman in his arms. He needed to erase her from his mind. It was easy to envision Abigail Phillips sitting in her San Francisco garden, but her lovely countenance was no more a distraction than Homer’s Odyssey.
Kit had turned his life upside down in less than a week. Bedding her would get her out of his blood, and a liaison would make the trip across the dusty prairie more enjoyable. He set off toward her wagon thinking that was exactly what he’d do.
A silver bar of moonlight and the earthy scent of the prairie tempered his mood until he heard a guitar carrying a somber and haunting tonal quality. Then Kit began to sing the ballad The Light of Other Days, pure and beautiful and breathy. Her version of the melody held a strange, otherworldly sound. He lit a cheroot and leaned against a cottonwood, his left thumb hooked into his suspenders. The music stirred his soul. Even when she strummed the last chord, the sound, lush and bursting with flavor, continued to swirl inside his thrumming heart.
Kit stepped from the wagon, sat on the tailgate, and swung her legs.
Cullen stubbed out his cigar and walked from the shadows. “Why‘d you do it, Kit?”
Her legs stopped on an upward swing, hung in midair for a moment, then she resumed pumping them at an easy glide. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“You could have drowned.”
“Saving the boy was worth the risk.”
“Worth risking your life for a person you didn’t know?”
She jumped to the ground, landing only a few feet from him. “He needed saving.”
“Even if it killed you?”
She chewed on her lower lip.
“How did you know to breathe into his mouth?”
She continued chewing on her lip. Finally, she said, “It doesn’t always revive a person. If bacteria are in his lungs, he might still die.”
Bacteria in his lungs? She said the damnedest things.
The breeze fluttered through silky strands of vanilla scented hair. Golden tendrils danced across her cheek. He barely breathed through an engulfing rush of heat. Compelled by an incomprehensible force, he closed the distance between them. His fingers burned. His muscles throbbed. He had to hold her tiny body in his arms once again.
His thumb trembled as it slid over the curve of her cheek, stopping below her mouth. With the tip of his finger, he lifted her chin and gazed into mystical eyes. He lowered his head, slowly, giving her a chance to withdraw. When she didn’t, he brushed his lips against hers, sipping her as if she were a glass of the finest French champagne, fruity and sweet. Still, she didn’t pull away, so he deepened the kiss, feeling her firm breasts pressing against him. He wanted to touch her, feel the rise and fall of her breath against his naked skin. Would she agree to take a lover? Gently, he cupped the back of her head, and his fingers furrowed into her hair. A groan of desire slipped from her lips. Maybe. His arousal pulsed between them.
The kiss ended but their lips lingered only a breath apart. Should he ask her to slip away with him into the darkness where he would bury his face in her hair, his hands in her pleasing curves, and satisfy them both?
He gazed again into her eyes. This time the campfire’s red glow reflected what he hadn’t seen before—quiet eyes filled with sadness and pain and loss. Emotions he knew too well.
Tiny hands too small to capture the wild beat of his heart rested against his chest. Then without saying a word in English or French or Latin or Greek or Gaelic or the smidgeon of Spanish he knew, she walked away. He followed as if an invisible cord connected them, but after a step or two, he realized there was no cord. She was not pulling him, but separating them.
“Damn.” He had just made the biggest mistake in his life. While seducing her had been his intention, he’d been the one drawn into the flame and burned. That wasn’t what he wanted. But what exactly did he want? A one night romp in the tall grass, or a torrid affair that would last until he reached Oregon. Both sounded pleasurable, but the consequences…
He walked into the coolness of the evening, into a breeze blowing through the cottonwood trees growing alongside the river, carrying with him the faint scent of vanilla on his fingers and the sweet taste of Kit’s lips on his tongue.
He tried to conjure a picture of Abigail, but all he saw was Kit. A distracting temptation and one he couldn’t allow. There was too much at stake. Abigail’s father had handpicked Cullen from a long line of suitors, and if she were agreeable, they would wed as soon as he returned to California. That’s what he wanted. Wasn’t it?