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She smiled up at him, then wound her arms around his neck. Standing on her tiptoes, she kissed his whiskered cheek. “Thank you so much. You won’t regret it. Who knows, he may even reward you by offering you a position at the manor stables.” The thought took wings in her heart then soared. “Oh, Nick, if that happens, everything will work out perfectly between us.”
He’d flushed scarlet beneath his whiskers when she’d kissed him and her words brought his brows into a V.
“Bet–“ He cleared his throat. “Between us?”
She sighed, then smiled up at him. “I think I should fill you in on the rest, Nick.“ She gestured to the chair by the fireplace. “You may want to sit down, this is going to take a bit, and may be somewhat hard to believe at first.”
He shook his head. “You were really going to kill me?”
She scowled at him. “You know, you’re wasting an awful lot of energy on that. I’m thinking it’s pretty much a moot point now. It’s time to let it go.”
His lips pressed firm, then in a move she didn’t see coming, his head swooped down and those tense lips were pressed on hers.
The kiss was angry, exasperated, exploratory, and gentle — all at once. The shock of it quickly faded and heat, which was unfamiliar and just a bit overwhelming, coursed through her as his lips continued their sensual assault.
Sensations pooled low in her belly, her heart thumped so hard she feared it would thump its way right out of her chest, and her hands, palms pressed to the twitching muscles of his chest, had gone sweaty.
Wow, so this was kissing?
If she’d known it would be so life altering, she would have let herself be kissed way before now.
A gentle nip had her lips parting and his tongue swept inside her mouth and her brain took a long awaited holiday.
She was a mass of feelings, with no thoughts to interfere or second guess the attraction which had ignited even during the fight at the police station when she thought she was wrestling the enemy.
She wanted more.
Frank bowed a little, doffing his cowboy hat. “Sorry if I startled you, Ma’am,” he said in his deep, resonating voice. “May I walk you back to the cabin? I’d like to have a word.”
Eliza nodded her assent and he dropped into step beside her. “Thank you again for the dinner, Ma’am.”
Eliza smiled up at him. “It was the least I could do.” Even though she’d paid the hands as well, dinner was part of the custom. You paid your workers with cash and with care, Mrs. McWhorter always said.
Frank removed his hat completely and turned it in his big, work-worn hands. He cleared his throat. He seemed nervous. She stopped and looked up at him, waited for him to say his piece.
He stared at his hands for a long while. “Miss O’Malley, I was wondering…”
She could hear the sound of her own heartbeat, along with the night sounds of a working farm. “What is it, Mr. McGee? What can I do for you?”
He looked up and into her eyes then. His dark eyes glowed in the scant light from the moon and the campfire.
“Miss Eliza, would you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?”
Had she heard him right? Or had her own romantic thoughts about Mr. McGee played tricks with her hearing? She peered into his intense gaze and repeated, “Court me?”
Frank drew in a great deep breath and blew it out.
“Yes, ma’am. Unless you are spoken for?”
“Spoken for?” She couldn’t get her mind to catch up to the thought that this handsome man wished to court her. This had never happened to her before and she had not expected it, not so soon after meeting the man.
Frank shoved his hat back onto his head and she was afraid she’d offended him. Then he reached out and grasped both her hands in his own and squeezed them tightly.
“Eliza, please, think of me as a suitor,” he implored her. “You are smart, beautiful, a hard worker.” He took another deep breath. “And you smell like heaven. I would be honored if you might consider me a beau, and might allow us to get better acquainted.”
Her heart tripped into a rapid beat. This man noticed scent.
She allowed herself a small smile. “I have no experience in such things, sir, but if you are sincere, and if you might be patient with my inexperience I would indeed like you to court me.”
He dropped fervent kisses on both her hands.
“Thank you, Eliza. Might I call you Eliza?”
She giggled. She’d thought of him as simply Frank almost all day long. “You may, if I might call you Frank.”
He grinned at her then, and his straight white teeth flashed in the moonlight. He tugged her hands, pulling her a little closer.
“You may.” His gaze was intense as he searched her eyes. “Eliza, just so you know, I am going to kiss you now.”
He didn’t hesitate, but dropped his face very close to hers. She could feel his breath on her lips a second before he touched his lips to hers in a soft, slow, very gentle kiss.
It was nothing like the hardy, rowdy kisses she had sometimes seen between the women at the pub and the men they were with. When she witnessed those kisses she got a funny feeling in her stomach, like she was seeing something wicked she should not observe. She got that funny feeling in her stomach again, but not because it felt wrong. Because the kiss felt very right. His lips were feather soft, moving very lightly, very carefully. He didn’t embrace her but still held her hands in his. Her heart pounded and he placed her hands against his chest where she could feel the rapid pace of his heart under her palms. And still he kissed her, slowly drawing her into the new status as the one Frank McGee was courting.
When he finally lifted his face from hers she followed his movement so she could place her cheek against his. His face was rough from the day’s growth of beard and she rubbed against it, needing to anchor this memory. Or was it just a dream? Would she wake up if she pinched herself?
She hoped not.
“Goodnight, sweet Eliza,” Frank said, his breath tickling her ear where he whispered the words. “When you are ready we can announce to your Pa that we are courting. I’ll not dignify the man with a request. You are your own woman and your decision is all I need.” He turned then and walked toward the campfire. She touched her fingers to her lips and could still feel the tingle of his gentle touch.
She carried that sensation into the cabin. It was time to find the diary – the book her mother promised would guide her as a Heartmark woman when it came time to fall in love. She took one of the lamps into the room with her, closed the door, and turned up the wick so the light spilled into the room.
Allison was filling one side of the sink with soapy water.
He stood to her left and pointed. “You can use the dishwasher.”
She smiled at him and shook her head. “Do you mind if we do them by hand?” she asked. “I think best when I’m doing something routine like washing dishes. Lets my mind roam a bit,
helps me find solutions.”
“Sure, that’s fine.” He couldn’t find a dishtowel to save his life. “Just a sec.” He ran to the box of bath towels, pulled one out and covered the counter with it. “I’ll rinse and we’ll let them
Allison nodded absently. She was stacking clean dishes into the other side of the sink, and he waited until quite a few had gathered, then sprayed to rinse them, stacking them on the
towel. They worked quietly, both lost in thought. He wondered if she was really thinking about their mystery or if, like him, she was soaking up the chance to stand close together, bumping
each other now and then, doing this homey task as a team. Every time she reached to place the next dish in the sink they managed to bump. Every time an electric sensation shot through him.
When Allison finished the last dish she opened the drain and began to wipe down the sink. Sean stacked his last dish and dried his hands on a remaining corner of the towel. He turned
then, watching Allison in profile as she completed her simple task.
“Hmm?” She turned and looked up and his heart began to pound a little faster. He reached out with one hand, rested it on her arm, stepped a little closer. He saw the realization in her eyes — she knew he was coming in for a kiss. A smile flickered over her lips and her gaze dropped to his mouth. He dropped his head to line up for a taste of that luscious-looking mouth and her eyes drifted closed. The first brush was light, careful, gentle. She held still, held her breath. He leaned in a little closer, his lips firmer. Her tongue flicked a corner of his mouth, quick and teasing. She opened her mouth just a little, and he took her shoulder by his hands to pull her closer. He brushed the sides of her neck with his thumbs. She pressed her body into his and lifted her arms, still damp from doing dishes, and wrapped them around him.
He deepened the kiss; awareness sizzling through every place his skin touched her.
Sabrina was tied to a hard backed chair, and each of her ankles tied to a leg of the chair. Her knees throbbed from the awkward position. Her back against the chair ached from the hard surface and the ill treatment that must have preceded her arrival to this place.
Her bottom lip throbbed, and she tasted blood.
Clearly she had been beaten.
What she did not know was why?
She fought through the fog clouding her brain, struggling to remember how she’d come to be in this dire situation.
A sense of urgency knotted her stomach, a feeling that there was something important she needed to do.
The more she tried to remember, the harder her head pounded. She ached more with every beat of her heart, with every pulse of blood through her sore body.
Something jumped onto her lap. Her throat slammed shut with terror, imagining a rat or some other such outbuilding animal attacking her. She attempted to push up and away, but the chair didn’t budge. She was too weak. What could she do to escape it?
The sound of purring broke through her panicked thoughts, and she realized a cat was now shifting itself on her lap, apparently thinking to make itself comfortable.
The sound and steady vibration of the feline’s deep purr helped to calm her, and its weight, although not a large cat by any means, warmed her lap, a fact which she was significantly grateful.
“I don’t know where we are, little one, but I’m glad you’re here.” Her hoarse whisper was rewarded by a small, soft meow.
Fancy had worked a full day even though it was only noon. Before Eliza cleaned up for dinner she gave Fancy a long drink, then took her to the barn where Frank had said she could give her a stall. She forked some hay into the manger, added a little grain, then backed Fancy into the stall. She took her saddle off and brushed the horse from head to tail in long, steady strokes. Shep lay at their feet and watched, his head resting on his paws, while Fancy munched contentedly.
Suddenly Fancy’s head came up and Shep came to his feet, both facing the barn door. The hairs on the back of Eliza’s neck prickled, just like the ones that stood up on Shep’s neck. The dog growled, a long, low growl. Fancy pawed the ground with one hoof, as if itching to move toward the shadow in the barn doorway.
“It’s just me,” came a woman’s voice. “Honestly, Shep, you’d think you’d get used to me by now.”
Frank’s sister stepped into the light that came through the open window. Eliza let out the breath she’d been holding.
“Well, hello,” she said. She dropped the brush with the other tack and stepped out of the stall to greet Jude. She latched the stall, removed her gloves, and extended a hand. “I’m Eliza O’Malley.”
“I’m Julia McGee.” The grip on her hand was firm – firmer than any other’s woman’s handshake, at least in Eliza’s experience.
Especially firm considering the young, slight woman before her. She couldn’t be twenty. Her light red hair was pulled back in a simple clasp at the back of her neck. Her skin was pearlescent, not a wrinkle in sight.
“Happy to meet you, Julia.”
“Jude, actually. Everyone calls me Jude.”
“Jude, then. I just finished putting my horse up. I hear dinner is ready. Was Allen useful to you in the kitchen?”
“More than useful. He is a master with a paring knife, and his pie crust may be the best I’ve ever had.” Jude’s mouth turned up in a smile and her green eyes shone with pleasure.
Eliza laughed. “I’m glad. I’m next to useless, so I figured you could use his help.”
“You didn’t look useless out there in the herd,” Jude countered. “You and your horse moved like one, and with Shep’s help you made quick work of sorting out the calves.”
Shep was still on all fours, hair on the back of his neck at alert. Behind her Fancy’s hooves struck the ground again. If these were the animal helpers…
But no, this couldn’t be the evil Mildreth. This was Frank’s sister, born in his household when he was a young man, not a time-traveling enemy. She shook off her discomfort.
Winter swiped a heavy hand against the sandpaper abrasion wetting her cheek.
A cat meowed
Her brows drew into a frown. Meow?
More sandpaper, then a nudge on her cheek from a wet, somewhat smelly head.
The sound of the ocean registered, and as she struggled to pry her eyes open, memories of the early morning events filtered through her brain.
She squinted up to the sky. The sun was at about ten a.m. Obviously, she hadn’t made the start of her shift, first day.
She could still smell rain in the air but the storm had passed and now the skies were blue. Only in San Francisco.
She turned her throbbing head and met the unblinking golden eyes of a calico cat. “Scat Cat?” she asked in confusion, realizing the second drug hadn’t targeted her vocal cords.
The undernourished, soaking wet cat purred, long and loud.
“You can’t be Scat Cat,” she murmured, reaching up and scratching the feline under its chin.
It couldn’t be the same cat. It was impossible the alley cat who had followed her to and from school since kindergarten, followed her back and forth from her part time job each and every day, then even to the bus stop the very day she had left town, was the same cat.
Scat Cat, because Winter had shouted the words to the cat, along with a hissing noise and a stomping foot, each and every day, worried the fool cat would get hit by a car by following her around everywhere.
Everywhere, that was, except her home. Oddly, when Winter was home, the stray cat never lingered.
She shook the cobwebs from her head and sat up. She had been wedged between two large boulders, completely hidden from the spread of beach where she and her captors had gathered earlier this morning.