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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.1
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           Cynthia Sterling
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A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance
1

  This book was originally published in print in 1999

  Copyright 1999 by Cynthia Sterling Myers

  Cover Design by Melody Simmons of eBookindiecovers

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be copied or re-sold. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. All characters in this book are fiction and figments of the author’s imagination, with the exception of real historical personages who may be mentioned in passing.

  A Willing Spirit

  By Cynthia Sterling

  Table of Contents

  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Epilogue

  Other Books by Cynthia Sterling

  Excerpt: Great Caesar’s Ghost

  CHAPTER ONE

  Texas, 1855

  The dried peas rattled in the crockery bowl with a sound like hail on a tin roof. Tessa Bright frowned, thinking of the holes that needed patching in her own shelter, and the hundred other chores that were more than one woman alone could see to. Especially not a woman with one arm in a cast. She balanced the bowl awkwardly on her knees, and began sorting through the peas for rocks and dirt. "If you really want to help me out, Will, could you see about finding me a hired man?” She raised her head and addressed the empty air. "Are you listening, Will?"

  "I'm listening.” The porch swing beside her wobbled with the weight of someone settling into the seat and a chill breeze swept over her. In spite of the summer heat, she shivered. She was never going to get used to that -- the way Will was so cold all the time now. Of course, the whole situation wasn't really the sort of thing anyone ever got used to, was it? What woman expected her husband to die and come back as a ghost?

  "Well? Can you do anything to help?” She glanced down the long drive that led to the road. Not that she got a lot of visitors out this way, but if anyone were to come by and see her having a conversation with thin air, they'd likely want to send her off to the mad house. Most of the folks in town already thought she was a few bricks shy of a full load.

  "I'm working on it.” Though she couldn't see him, Will's voice was as familiar to her as his face had ever been. He had a beautiful voice: low, with a hint of gravel in the throat. Hearing it now, without the comfort of his physical presence, brought a hollow ache to her chest, a different kind of hole that couldn't be mended with mere tarpaper and tin. "I don't want just any man to take my place," he said.

  She shifted the bowl, trying to get a better grip. "I don't want another husband, Will.” She was just getting used to looking out for herself. Why complicate matters by trying to start over with another man? "I just need someone temporary, until my arm heals.” She scowled at the plaster cast on her left forearm, as if it were personally responsible for all her troubles. Maybe if she'd had help to doctor that gelding, she wouldn't be in such a fix now.

  "You need someone to look after you and this place, the way I did," Will said. "Someone upstanding and respectable, who can help you make friends in town."

  "I just need someone useful.” She nodded. "Someone who knows about horses and doesn't drink too much. Someone young enough to be strong. . . but not too handsome."

  "Why not handsome?” Will sounded surprised.

  She shifted in the swing. If only she could see Will. He had been a handsome man, and he'd stolen her heart so easily. Better not to take any chances. "I don't want talk in town," she said.

  Will made a noise like a horse snorting. "They're gonna talk, no matter what.” The swing shook as it emptied of his weight. "You just leave everything to me."

  She sighed and turned her attention once more to the peas, stifling a flutter of irritation. Will had done such a good job of looking after her when he was alive, she supposed it was only natural that he wanted to continue now that he'd passed on. But wasn't it about time he realized she could look after herself?

  "What's this?”

  His question made her look up. She squinted into the bright sunlight. A man was walking down the drive toward the house. A tall man in a dirty brown hat, carrying a saddle. "I wonder what happened to the horse that went with that saddle?" she mused.

  Will was silent, retreating as he always did whenever anyone else was around. She stood, cradling the bowl of peas, and walked to the edge of the porch, squinting into the bright June sun at the stranger. The broad brim of his hat cast a shadow across his face, but his quick and steady gait identified him as a young man. The saddle, though heavy with tooled leather and silver conchos, seemed hardly to burden him as he carried it on his shoulder. The blue of his flannel shirt had faded to a soft pewter, and his trousers were clumsily patched above one knee. Instead of a gun, he wore a long-bladed knife at his side.

  He stopped at the wooden gate in the low picket fence that surrounded the yard and nodded politely before lowering the saddle to the ground. "Morning, ma'am," he said. "Is your man at home?"

  She resisted the urge to smile. In Will's present condition, he couldn't exactly be said to be anywhere. "I'm afraid my husband passed on last year."

  He paused for a moment, as if considering his next move. She wondered if she should have gotten the gun from the house. She forgot sometimes how vulnerable she was, a woman alone.

  "Then I guess you're the one I need to talk to," the stranger said. He nodded toward the corral beside the house. "I saw your horses. Wondered if you'd be interested in buying this saddle."

  She relaxed a little. Nothing about this man seemed threatening. He was just a traveler, passing through. She studied the firm set of his chin, all she could see clearly in the shadow of the hat. "I've got saddles."

  "This is a good saddle. Hand-tooled leather and finest Mexican silver.” His voice was soft, barely accented, like one who hadn't been born speaking English, though he spoke it well enough now.

  She followed his gaze to the saddle. "If it's so wonderfully fine, why do you want to sell it?"

  He tilted his head and she thought she detected a hint of a smile at the corners of his lips, but she couldn't be sure. "A saddle like this isn't much good without a horse."

  "Then you've come to the right place.” She stepped down off the porch, into the yard. "Those horses you see are for sale. One of them might be perfect for your saddle."

  He turned his head toward the half-dozen horses that had gathered along the corral fence, like spectators at a sporting exhibition. Necks stretched over the top rail, ears arched forward in curiosity. Tails flicked at flies and hooves stamped as if to demonstrate the vitality of all her stock. In truth, it hurt her each time she had to part with one of her dears, but there were bills to be paid and she couldn't let sentimentality get in the way of eating.

  The stranger turned back to her. "Fine animals. Expensive?"

  She nodded. "Of course."

  He looked down at the saddle and nudged it with the worn toe of one knee-high boot. "Which brings me to the second reason the saddle is for sale. I don't have the price of a beer on me, much less the gold to buy one of your horses."

  She wondered how far he'd walked, carrying that saddle. She'd assumed he'd come from town, but anyone there would have given him a good price
for his burden. Now she thought he must have been traveling through, and turned into her drive because it was the first place he'd come to. "So I can't sell you a horse, and I don't want to buy your saddle.” She took a deep breath, her heart fluttering in her chest as she searched for the right words. She'd never offered anyone a job before. What if he turned her down? Or worse, what if he saw through her pretense at boldness and laughed at her timidity? "But maybe we can still do business."

  He was silent, his gaze fixed on the saddle.

  "I need a man to help me around the place," she continued. "Just a couple of months, until my arm mends.” She nodded toward the cast. "I can pay you fifty cents a day, and room and board."

  He looked past her, to the house. She wondered if he saw the fine place it had been, or only the disrepair into which it had fallen this last year. Then he nodded. "All right, ma'am. I'll take the job.” He swept off his hat and held his hand over the fence.

  A tremor ran through her as the stranger's eyes met her own. She gasped and fumbled with the bowl, but the cast made her awkward and the crockery slipped through her fingers. The bowl shattered on the hard dirt and peas rolled and bounced across the yard. "Oh no!" she cried, and knelt, attempting to scoop up the fragments.

  "Here, let me help you.” He opened the gate and knelt across from her. She couldn't take her eyes from him, seeing that her first impression of him was true.

  He was one of the handsomest men she had ever seen, with sharply chiseled features that melded strength and beauty. The sight of him made her insides go all quivery and her thoughts tumble over themselves in a panic.

  Not only that, but he was an Indian. How could she have missed that before? She had mistaken the brown of his hands for the effects of the summer sun, until she'd seen the coppery tan of his face. Out of the shadow of his hat, his sculpted cheekbones and chiseled nose betrayed his heritage, as did the ink-black hair tied at the base of his neck with a leather thong. Only his eyes seemed foreign to his features, eyes the deep green of Mississippi pines.

  He was a halfbreed then. The realization did nothing to slow the rapid drumbeat of her heart as they continued to stare at one another, motionless.

  "Is something wrong?” He was the first to break the spell between them.

  She shook her head, trying to hide the shaking in her hands as she gathered broken bits of pottery. Why was this happening to her? This man could only mean trouble.

  Of course, she could always send him away. She raised her eyes to look at him once more, at the smooth blackness of his hair and the deep brown of his skin. His broad shoulders strained at the fabric of his shirt as he reached out to capture a rolling pea. Here was a man who could work hard. A man familiar enough with horses to own a custom-made saddle. He was everything she'd hoped for, and who was to say when she'd come across another one like him out here on the edge of the wilderness?

  She gathered her apron to hold the errant peas and pottery and stood. "What's your name?" she asked.

  He rose also, and replaced the hat on his head. "Fox," he said. "Micah Fox."

  She forced a business-like expression to her face and extended her hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Fox. My name's Tessa Bright."

  He hesitated only a moment before taking her hand. His grasp was gentle but firm, sending a wave of warmth through her. Once more, his eyes captured and held her gaze and her knees began to tremble beneath her long skirts. "Why don't you put your things in the barn, and I'll go fix you something to eat," she said, looking away.

  He shouldered the saddle once more and she turned toward the house, forcing herself to walk slowly, when inside, all she wanted to do was run. When she reached the privacy of her kitchen, she sagged against the doorway. "So, Will, what do you think of that one?" she whispered.

  But the only answer that came to her was silence.

  #

  The ornate iron gate first caught Micah's attention as he trudged through the dusty ruts that cut across the Texas plains. Shaded by a single scrub oak, it marked the entrance to a long drive. Instead of simple bars or rails, this gate was formed of pictures: trees and deer and horses and people, and the slanting rays of a sun beaming down from behind a mountain, like the fancy work of a silhouette artist he'd seen once at a fair. Iron, strong yet delicate as lace, formed the branched antlers of deer, the curved outline of a woman, and the muscular figure of a man. Micah stood and stared at the gate for a long time, the saddle weighing heavy on his shoulder and hunger gnawing at his belly. A little while before, a passing drover had told him it was four miles to the nearest town, four miles on top of the fourteen he'd already walked, the saddle biting into his shoulder, his steps growing heavier with each mile away from the coffee he'd had for breakfast.

  He'd opened the gate and walked down that long drive because he'd wanted to meet a person who would hang a work of art in the middle of the prairie. He hadn't expected a woman, certainly not that frail-looking figure with the bandaged arm. Her brown hair hung in a simple braid down her back, and the dress she wore was faded the same brown color from sun and many washings. She was like a little wren standing in front of her house. But when she spoke, she had all the cockiness of a jay, challenging him to buy her horses. And her brown eyes flashed with humor.

  He liked her even before she asked him to stay, and he was glad enough to do so, to get to know her better. But her friendliness had vanished the moment he removed his hat, and she drew away, as others had before.

  She'd recovered well, but he hadn't missed the fear. He'd seen it before, the turning away at the sight of his black hair and brown skin. Would she send him away, as others had, or was she so desperate for help she'd take it from a half-breed?

  He bit back his anger and carried the saddle to the barn. The woman was not the only one who could put aside her true feelings for the moment. He'd stay for a while, long enough to fill his belly and put aside some cash. Let her think what she liked about him.

  He shoved open the door to the barn and the familiar scent of hay and manure and leather filled his nostrils. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he made out a row of horse boxes on one side, feed bins and saddle racks arranged on the other side of the room. He found a place for his own saddle, then went in search of somewhere to bed down. One thing for sure, he'd need to borrow a couple blankets. The barn was cold as creek water in January.

  "Nice saddle you got there."

  He whirled and stared at the man who stood before him, instinctively reaching for the knife at his waist. He wasn't accustomed to people sneaking up on him. The kind of life he'd led, letting a stranger get the drop on you might be your last mistake. But the man before him now didn't appear to pose much of a threat. For one thing, he was at least twenty years older than Micah, deep furrows plowed on either side of his mouth. Everything about him was pale, from his long silver hair to his round, fleshy face. "Who are you?" Micah demanded, as his heartbeat slowed to normal.

  "A friend of Tessa's.” The old man leaned against an empty stall and folded his arms over his barrel chest. He didn't look very strong now, but judging from his build, at one time he must have been. "What brings you to this part of the country?" he asked.

  Hiding his annoyance, Micah shrugged. "Just passing through."

  The old man grunted. "You running from the law?"

  Micah bristled. "Who are you, anyway? What makes you think any of this is your business?"

  The old man straightened and unfolded his arms. "It's my business to see that Tessa isn't taken in by some no-account drifter ready to steal her blind the first time her back is turned.” His face wasn't exactly flushed, but it did look. . . brighter?

  Micah curled his hands into fists at his sides. "And of course, Indians will take anything that isn't nailed down, isn't that right?"

  To his surprise, the old man laughed. "Sure, I know all about Indians.” His expression quickly sobered. "You just give me your word you don't mean Tessa any harm. That'll be enough for me."


  Micah felt the tension go out of his shoulders. He didn't like the old man much, but he guessed he couldn't blame the fellow for wanting to protect his friend. A woman alone couldn't be too careful. He put his hand over his heart, the sign for a promise or pledge. "I don't mean to do anything but help her out with her ranch until her arm heals. Then I'll be moving on."

  The old man nodded. "There's a tackroom at the end of the barn. You can clean it out and bunk in there."

  Micah nodded his thanks and made his way to the single door at the end of the barn. One corner had been walled off to form a box room, filled with trunks and old tack and farm implements. "I'll need to borrow a couple of blankets.” He glanced over his shoulder to address the old man, but the barn was empty. He scratched his head. How had the old guy left without him even hearing the door open?

  He decided to leave the storeroom for later and walk back up to the house. Tessa Bright had promised him a meal, and it wasn't an offer he intended to pass up.

  The smell of frying bacon that hit him when he stepped into the kitchen was better than the aroma of the most expensive perfume. Tessa, tending the pan on the big iron cookstove, looked over her shoulder at him, a nervous smile on her lips. "I'll have you a plate fixed in a minute," she said. "You can pour yourself a cup of coffee and have a seat."

  The coffee was fresh and hot; he couldn't remember tasting better. He sat at the scrubbed wooden table and watched Tessa as she cooked. She'd put on a clean apron and smoothed her hair and the heat of the stove -- or maybe his presence? -- flushed her cheeks a becoming pink. She was young, he guessed, twenty-five or so. So what was a young, pretty woman doing here, in the middle of nowhere, alone? Of course, she wasn't really alone, was she? "Who was the old man I met in the barn?" he asked.

  The spatula slipped from her hand and clattered loudly against the skillet. "Wh. . . what old man?"

  "Short, silver hair, broad shoulders. Wanted to know what I was doing here and where I came from and just what were my intentions.” He chuckled. "You'd have thought I was here to court you and he was your father."

  "He's not my father.” She picked up the spatula and resumed turning the eggs.

  "Who is he, then?"

  "Just. . . a friend.” She hefted the skillet, handling it awkwardly because of the cast, but managing to transfer its contents to a plate. "I didn't have time to make biscuits. But I've got cornbread from last night."

  "Cornbread is fine.” He glanced toward the back door. "Is your friend going to be eating with us?"

  She shook her head. "No. He. . . he went on home."

  "I didn't know you had close neighbors. Yours was the only drive I passed in quite a while."

  "Not too close. He. . . he's sort of a hermit.” She waved the spatula vaguely in the air. "You know -- lives off in the wilderness, keeps to himself."

  Micah nodded. He'd met the type once or twice in his travels -- old trappers or hunters who preferred solitude to the hustle and bustle of humanity. Some of them went months, or even years, without saying two words to another human being. He watched Tessa balance the plate of food on the cast while she plucked a knife and fork from a crock on the counter. "What happened to your arm?" he asked.

  She made a face at the cast. "There's a gelding out there who cut his leg on some wire. He didn't appreciate my efforts to doctor it and knocked me for a loop."

  "Broken?"

  She nodded. "The doctor in town says it'll be another five or six weeks before the cast comes off. In the meantime, I'm not good for much of anything.” She slid a plate in front of him. "You showed up just in time, Mr. Fox."

  The bacon-and-egg smell rose to him in sweet waves, and his hands trembled as he picked up his fork. She buttered a slab of cornbread and set it beside his plate, then poured a cup of coffee and took the chair across from him.

  For several minutes, the only sound in the room was his fork scraping against the plate. "Looks as if it's been a while since you had a decent meal," she said softly after a moment.

  He swallowed before he answered. "Got a rabbit day before yesterday."

  "Game's scarce this time of year."

  "Have you lived out here long?” His questions bordered on rudeness, but he couldn't stop asking them. Tessa Bright sparked his curiosity as no one had in a long time.

  In any case, she seemed willing enough to answer him. "Seven years. My husband and I came out here right after we married."

  He used the last of the cornbread to wipe his plate clean. "How long have you been here alone?"

  "My husband died last spring. One of the horses threw him and he hit his head."

  "I'm sorry."

  "He made that gate.” She nodded toward the road. "That fancy one up front."

  "That's some gate. Never saw one like it before."

  "Folks thought it was crazy to put something like that way out here, but it brought us more customers than anything. My husband was a blacksmith. Besides shoeing horses and fixing wagons, he made candlesticks and firedogs and lamp stands. Anything out of iron, he could do.” She gave him a long, measured look. "Tell me the truth now. The gate brought you here, didn't it?"

  He blinked. "Why do you say that?"

  She stood and took his empty plate. "You strike me as a curious man, Mr. Fox."

  He watched as she carried the plate to a basin of soapy water by the door. She moved with an easy grace despite her bandaged arm, unselfconscious, though she must have known his gaze was fixed on her. "You're right," he said. "I came here because I was curious about your gate. But I stayed because I'm curious about you."

  She looked up, eyes betraying her surprise, and was that a flicker of fear again? "There's nothing very curious about me, Mr. Fox. I'm a very ordinary woman."

  He hid his smile. He liked knowing he could ruffle that cool exterior. "No ordinary woman would be out here on her own, raising horses without a husband, with one arm in a cast. And doing fairly well from what I see.” He stood and drained the last of the coffee from his cup.

  She looked away, and began scrubbing furiously at the plate. "I expect to do better with your help. You might as well get to work right away. There's a gate in the south corner of the corral that needs re-hanging, and stalls that need cleaning."

  He had to pass very close to her on his way out the door, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to steady himself with a hand on her shoulder as he squeezed past. He could feel the delicate bones beneath his fingers, and the tremble that shot through her at his touch. He carried the feeling with him out into the barn, like the memory of a wild bird held in the palm of his hand, or the feel of a skittish colt beneath his legs.

 
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