A willing spirit a ghost.., p.12
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.12

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER TWELVE

  Tessa had made up her mind to speak to Micah about Margery. She'd been wrong to avoid the subject when the best thing to do was to clear the air. She had no right to hold his past against him anymore than she could lay claim to any part of his future. Still, she spent some time in her room, fussing over her appearance and working up the courage to confront him again. Hair neatly combed and a fresh apron around her waist, she went downstairs to the kitchen to find Micah already waiting for her, a bouquet of wildflowers in his hand.

  "I thought you might like these," he said, offering the flowers.

  She stared at the bunch of yellow sunflowers and purple gayfeather, every word of the carefully prepared speech she'd intended to make vanished from her mind. The bright blossoms splayed against his brown fingers, their delicate stems cradled in his palm. He had held her with the same gentleness and strength once. The craving to feel his touch filled her now. A weak, "Thank you," was all she could manage, before turning to rummage in an overhead cabinet for a vase.

  "Let me get that for you.” He came up behind her and reached up to pluck the vase off the high shelf. She froze as his body brushed against her, awareness sharpening every nerve ending.

  He moved away slowly, leaving a lingering warmth. She drew a deep steadying breath and the scent of him filled her head, an intoxicating mix of soap and leather and clean male skin.

  "There. Is that all right?”

  She turned and was aware of the filled vase on the sideboard, but more aware of him, standing beside his gift. He fixed his gaze on her, eyes languid and intense. She hugged her arms over her chest in a feeble defense against that searching gaze. Her skin burned, as if he could somehow see through her clothing, all the way to her bare skin, or further still, to her heart.

  "I'm hungry," he said, and the innocent words sent a bolt of heat through her.

  "S. . . supper's ready.” She jolted from her stupor and hastily took her place at the table. For a moment, all was quiet, as they set about filling their plates. Tessa began to relax. How odd, that she should feel so uneasy. It was only Micah here with her, no different than he'd ever been.

  "How did the meeting go?" he asked as he helped himself to fresh field peas.

  "The meeting? Oh, it went fine.” She focused on cutting into her fried ham, surprised to find her hands shaking. What had come over her? Was it just a release of nerves, now that she'd made it through the trial of hosting all those town women here? "We've collected quite a bit of money so far. Mr. Hardy even made a donation."

  "There was a tall young woman, in a green dress. Who was she?"

  Tessa thought a minute. "That was Ammie Smith.” She glanced across the table at him. "Why do you want to know?"

  His lips barely curved into the hint of a smile. "She was flirting with me when I brought her horse around."

  Tessa clutched the knife and fork until her fingers hurt and went back to cutting her meat. The words that came out of her mouth sounded strained. "Yes. She mentioned she thought you were handsome."

  He shook his head. "I've never cared much for such black hair on a woman, really. I prefer brown hair."

  She had thought he would say redheads. The surprise must have shown on her face. She jerked her head up and found herself trapped by his gaze, pinned to her chair like a stunned bird. "I like hair your color," he said. "Rich brown, like turned earth, or coffee with cream. And brown eyes, flecked with gold."

  His voice was low, hypnotic. She had never heard him speak like this. She wished he would stop. The change was too frightening. . . too fascinating.

  "I think your meat is cut enough."

  She looked at her plate and saw that she'd reduced her ham to hash. Dropping her knife, she scooped up a forkful, scarcely tasting as she chewed.

  "It's a warm afternoon, isn't it?” He unbuttoned the cuffs of his shirt and rolled up the sleeves to reveal muscular forearms. She had never noticed what slender fingers he had. Strong, yet agile. She forced her eyes away from him, but she could not force away the longing for his touch.

  "Aren't you hungry?" he asked. "You aren't eating much."

  With trembling hands, she buttered a biscuit and took a bite.

  "Wait a minute.” He leaned toward her and put out a hand. "You have a crumb. Right. . . there.” He touched the corner of her mouth with one finger. She jerked at his touch, as if she'd been burned, and a gasp escaped her.

  And then his finger was in her mouth, feeding her the crumb, the rough skin grazing her lips. The gasp gave way to a sigh, and she closed her lips around him, caressing him with her tongue, tasting his salty skin.

  She watched his eyes darken with desire, and felt a surge of pleasure race through her. He breathed in rough pants, or was that herself she heard?

  He jerked his hand from her, the movement pulling her toward him. She closed her eyes, silently begging him to touch her, to kiss her. Every inch of her burned for his touch, her breasts felt heavy and aching, her body feverish with desire.

  The scrape of the chair against the table made her open her eyes. He stood, still breathing hard, and stared down at her. "I'd better go see to the horses," he gasped, and walked stiffly from the room.

  She reached out for him, but he did not turn and see. As the door closed behind him, she sagged against the table, bereft and confused, halfway between screaming and crying, knowing neither would ease the ache within her.

  #

  Micah plunged his hands into the water trough and splashed his face. But he doubted if mere water could cool the fire within him. He leaned against the side of the barn, heedless of the water dripping down to soak his shirt. He hadn't meant for things to get so out of hand back there. He'd only meant to tease her with words and looks, to wet her appetite with a taste of what would come later.

  She'd responded so readily to his every move. Her wide-eyed nervousness had tempted him to further his seduction. The pleasure of watching her desire awaken had eased his own frustration at waiting for her.

  And then, the minute her lips had closed around his finger, he'd been lost. He'd have taken her on the table, heedless of dishes or daylight. But the knowledge of all the warnings she must have heard about living with a savage had stayed him.

  So he'd retreated to think and plan some more. He intended to treat her like the lady she was, to love her as tenderly as any storybook hero.

  He turned and looked toward the house. Tonight, when the veil of night would render them both less vulnerable, he'd go to her.

  #

  Will was inclined to push Fox into the water trough. Not that he really thought that would do much to cool the young man's ardor. It had been some twenty years since he'd been Fox's age, but he hadn't forgotten the hold lust could have on a young man.

  But Fox needed to ease that particular ache with someone other than Will's wife.

  All right, so she wasn't exactly his wife anymore. But she didn't need to be fooling around with some half-breed vagrant. Not when he was setting her up to marry a minister. Deering wasn't the brightest man he'd ever met, but even he would object to his fiance sleeping with another man.

  Fox left the barn and headed for the woodpile. He'd just picked up the ax when Will sauntered around the corner of the house. "I always found chopping wood to be a good way to work off a little nervous energy," Will said approvingly.

  Fox gave him a curious look. "I'll be happy to lend you the ax any time," he said.

  "Oh no. I'm past all that.” Will settled himself on a stack of wood. "And I daresay a little good old-fashioned constructive work would do you good."

  Fox balanced a log on the chopping block. "Is there something in particular you wanted to talk about, Will? If not, I've got work to do.” He raised the ax over his head and brought it down, neatly cleaving the log in two.

  "I've seen the way you've been looking at Tessa," Will said. "It don't take a mind reader to know what you've been thinking. I'm here to tell you to put a stop to it right this m
inute."

  Fox froze, ax in mid-air. "I don't know what you're talking about."

  "Don't you?” Will broke off a long splinter of wood and began cleaning his nails. "So you're telling me you don't have any interest in bedding her? All your feelings are innocent as a baby's?"

  The murderous look on Fox's face made Will glad he was already dead, and thus immune to the implied threat. "What goes on between me and Tessa is none of your business," Fox said.

  Will crossed his arms over his chest. "I believe it is. I promised Tessa I'd look after her, and I'm a man who keeps his promises. I can't let her go ruining her life with you."

  Fox lowered the ax and looked toward the house. The rattle of pots and pans told them Tessa was doing the dishes. "Answer me one question -- did Tessa ask you to talk to me?"

  Will shook his head. "She doesn't know anything about this. And she doesn't need to know."

  "Then I think you'd better mind your own business.” He picked up one of the split halves and brought the ax down again forcefully, sending wood chips flying.

  Will stood and squared his shoulders. "Give it up, Fox. You can't do anything for Tessa but ruin her reputation and spoil her chances of finding a decent husband."

  "I can make her happy. From what I've seen, she's had little enough of that lately."

  Will considered this, then nodded. "You'll make her happy for a little while, and then you'll leave her broken-hearted."

  Fox stiffened. "It won't be like that between us. She knows we aren't meant to stay together, but we can enjoy each other for a little while. No strings attached."

  Will shook his head. A man could think like that easy enough, but how could a woman? Will had learned a few things in his lifetime, and one of them was that women weren't made of the same stuff as men. When they felt something, they felt it deeper. Their hearts lacked the callousness that allowed men to keep things on a merely physical level. "You're not listening to a word I say," he complained.

  Fox nodded and brought the ax down on another chunk of wood. "You're right. And I don't intend to."

  Will left then, disappearing on the down stroke of the ax, while Fox was intent on hitting his target. Invisible once more, he looked toward the house again. A single light shone in an upstairs window. Tessa would be getting ready for bed about now. She was a sensible woman. She'd listen to reason.

  Most of all, she'd listen to him. She always had. A man couldn't have asked for a better wife. She'd trusted him to take care of her, and she went right on trusting him now. He'd have a little talk with her and she'd see it was time to send Micah Fox packing.

  He found her seated on the end of the bed, wearing a long cotton nightgown. Her hair was undone, falling in waves to her waist, like dark water overflowing onto new-fallen snow. As he watched, she picked up a silver-backed brush and began to brush the long locks. "I always like to watch you comb out your hair," he said softly.

  She jerked and looked around, one hand pressed to her heart. "Will, you startled me."

  "I didn't think I had to knock to come into my own bedroom.” He settled onto the bed, the pillows denting with his impression.

  She looked away, and resumed brushing her hair. "It's my bedroom now, Will. And. . . well, sometimes I need my privacy.” She stood and carried the brush to the dresser. "I don't like the thought of you dropping in without warning."

  "That doesn't sound like the Tessa I know. What's gotten in to you?"

  She faced him again, arms folded under her breasts. "Maybe I've changed. Grown up."

  "You haven't changed. You're still the same sweet Tessa I married."

  "I'm not the same," she insisted, softly.

  He ignored the remark and put his hands behind his head, getting comfortable. "I'm glad you're working with Deering on his mission project," he said. "It's a crazy idea, but it will help you get to know each other better. Before long, he'll see what a good wife you'll make him."

  "I don't want to marry Reverend Deering.” She sat on the end of the bed.

  "Not want to marry Deering? Don't be silly. He's perfect for you."

  She looked toward him, or rather, at the dented pillows, which would be all she was able to see of him. "I don't love him, Will.”

  He let out an exasperated breath. "You'll learn to love him. Plenty of marriages start without love. It'll come with time."

  She shaped her mouth into the stubborn pout he was coming to know too well. "I don't want to settle for that. I married for love the first time, I won't do less the second."

  Her mention of her love for him touched him. He was beginning to think she'd forgotten. He leaned forward and reached out his hand. "Oh, Tessa --"

  She flinched, and he shrank back, cursing the coldness that never left him, the feelings he could no longer feel. One by one, the physical senses were leaving him. But the deeper sensations, like this pain when he saw her saddened, lingered, sharper than ever in the absence of a body to dull them.

  "I know what Fox has done to you," he said. "He's seduced you and made you think about things you never would have before."

  "It's not Micah, it's me. I want to feel these things."

  "Don't do something you'll regret later. Don't ruin your reputation with a man like him."

  "Reputation won't warm this bed at night.” She drove her fist into the mattress. "Reputation won't hold me and make me feel alive again."

  "Tessa, listen to me --"

  "No!” She was crying now, tears streaming down her face. "I can't listen to you. I have to think of myself for a change. I'm not a girl anymore, Will. I'm a woman and I'm tired of being alone all the time."

  "You're not alone. You've got me to look after you."

  "You're dead, Will. You can't look after me.” She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but that's the truth. I have to take care of myself."

  "You're making a mistake."

  She bowed her head. "Then it's my mistake to make."

  He stared at her for a long while, too stunned to think. He felt numb, light. Like dying all over again.

  #

  Micah finished chopping wood and put away the ax. Will's words still burned in his brain. Was he doing the wrong thing? Was he really hurting Tessa?

  In his room at the barn, he stripped and washed. He scrubbed hard, until his skin burned from the harsh lye soap. But even that did not dull his desire for Tessa. He dressed in a loose white shirt and jeans and combed out his hair. He started to retie it but decided to leave it loose. After he'd come to live with his aunt and uncle, he'd cut his hair short, in an effort to fit in with everyone around him. But when he'd hired on with the Army, they'd assigned him to work with the trackers. There, he'd let his hair grow long again, like the Tonkawas, Utes and Apaches he worked with. He'd never felt the urge to cut it again. His short hair had always felt like a disguise; a disguise that fooled no one.

  The moon was up by the time he emerged from the barn, a waning quarter like a Spanish silver piece suspended between the trees. Barefoot, he walked across the yard, the ground cool beneath his feet. He paused near the back porch and gazed up at the single light on the second floor. Tessa's bedroom.

  He wondered if he should knock on the back door. After a moment's hesitation, he opened it and went in without announcing his presence. The moonlight shone through the windows onto a room set in order. Dishes waited on the sideboard, ready for breakfast. The fire was banked in the stove, the table freshly scrubbed and smelling of soap and lemon.

  He walked into the hallway and started up the stairs, moving slowly, soundlessly. The dim glow from beneath the door to Tessa's room guided him like a beacon. Heart pounding, he stopped outside the door and tried to calm his ragged breathing. He sounded as winded as if he'd run a mile. Now was the time to turn back. To take up his saddle and walk down the road the way he had come. Those were his choices: either go to her now or leave forever.

  He put his hand up and knocked, the hard sound echoing in the stillness. No answer came. He tr
ied again. Still only silence. He put his ear to the door and listened. Was she so sound asleep she didn't hear him?

  And then he heard it. A low, muffled sobbing, coming from below, someone grieving as if her heart was broken.

  He turned and descended the stairs, following the sound to the front porch. She was curled up in the porch swing, weeping almost soundlessly. The sobs shook her, each one tearing at him.

  "Tessa, what's wrong?” He stood over her, his hand hovering at her back, afraid to touch her, fearful she might shatter beneath his fingers.

  She looked up and stared at him through her tears. Her face was red, her eyes puffy from crying, yet to him, she was beautiful.

  "Hold me," she whispered. "Please hold me."

  He sat and gathered her into his arms, as gently as he might have held a child, or a newborn colt. He stroked her back, over and over in a soothing rhythm. Her sobs slowed, the shaking subsided.

  "What's wrong?" he asked again.

  She shook her head, still unable to speak.

  "Is it. . . were you thinking about your husband?” Shame followed close on the heels of the jealousy that pricked him. How could he be jealous of a dead man? His emotions were as unruly as a wild horse where Tessa was concerned.

  "No.” She wiped her eyes with the full sleeve of her gown. "Yes.” She looked up at him through lashes sparkling with tears. "It doesn't matter. You're here now.” Then she startled him by kissing his neck, burying her face in his hair. He savored the feel of her soft lips caressing his skin.

  He pulled her face up to his and his lips found hers. He kissed her gently at first, then with greater urgency as his need for her reawakened.

  Her hands twined in his hair, then stroked down his back, drawing him nearer. He coaxed open her mouth and kissed her with his tongue, tasting the remnants of her tears, salty and sweet. She answered the invitation with gentle forays of her own, tasting, teasing, seeking.

  They kissed for long minutes, and then suddenly, kissing was not enough. A sigh escaped her as his hand slid to her breast. She pressed against his palm, coaxing him to knead the firm softness of it through the thin fabric of her gown, to stroke the sensitive tip until she gasped with pleasure.

  Wanting to please her more, he bent and undid the row of round pearl buttons up the front of her gown. She gasped as the cool air rushed over her skin, then sighed as he gathered the tip of her breast into his mouth. With little coaxing, she straddled his thigh and arched against him as he lavished attention on each luscious breast in turn.

  Just when the need within him became painful, she drew away, and smiled at him, her eyes bright with passion. "Take your shirt off," she ordered, tugging at the fabric.

  He removed the shirt, and unbuttoned his trousers as well, taking her hand and wrapping it around the length of his desire, gasping at the sharp jolt of pleasure this brought him. He wouldn't wait much longer to take her, to satisfy the longing they'd both endured too long.

  He bent to kiss her, then caressed the tip of her ear with his tongue. "We should go in the house," he murmured.

  She nodded, and began to unwrap herself from around him. Then she stiffened in his arms, and her eyes widened with fear. "Look out!" she screamed, just as a flower pot came hurtling through the air toward his head.

  He ducked, shielding her with his body, and the pot sailed over them, exploding against the wall in a rain of dirt and pottery fragments. Raising up, he set Tessa gently away from him and stood, scanning the area for whoever had thrown the pot. But the yard and the porch were empty. He stared at the scattered flowers and dirt, trying to make sense of things. "How did that happen?" he asked.

  The only answer was a slamming door. He heard Tessa's feet, racing up the stairs, and the sound of her door opening and closing, then the hollow echo of the bolt being driven home.

  Micah didn't have to ponder the question long to know who had thrown the pot of flowers. Only one person had suspected his intentions regarding Tessa, and tried to stop him. "Will!"

  The word echoed in the still air. Micah rose and stared out over the yard. "Will, you can't hide from me forever!" he shouted. "Come out and face me like a man."

  "No need to shout. I'm right behind you."

  Micah whirled and saw the old man seated in the swing, arms crossed over his barrel chest. He glared at him. "You threw that flower pot, didn't you?"

  Will shrugged, poker-faced. "If you insist."

  "What did you think you were doing? You could have hurt Tessa."

  The old man frowned. "I wouldn't have hurt Tessa. You were the one I was after."

  "Why? Did you really think a bump on the head would keep me away from her?"

  "It might make you think twice."

  "Old man, I've had enough of your interfering.” He stepped forward, intending to jerk Will up by the collar.

  Suddenly, the swing was empty.

  "You're too slow," said a voice behind him.

  Micah blinked and turned. Will grinned. "In any case, I stopped things cold tonight."

  "Leave Tessa alone!" Micah growled. "And if you know what's good for you, you'll leave me alone too."

  Will's smile changed to a sneer. "Do you really think you worry me?"

  "Don't push me --"

  The old man took a step forward, until he was practically nose to nose with Micah. "I'm pushing."

  All the frustrated passion and pent-up anger at past hurts went into the punch Micah threw. It was a punch that should have sent the old man sprawling. Instead, Micah felt a rush of cold air and then -- nothing.

  Will stood in front of him, steady on his feet. "You missed," he observed.

  "Put up your fists and fight," Micah ordered.

  Will shrugged. "Like this?” He struck a boxer's pose.

  Micah nodded and drew his fist back once more. He aimed for the old man's jaw, hoping to fell him quickly and avoid hurting him too badly. He'd been in his share of brawls and knew just the force to put behind the blow. Aim true, he leaned forward and connected solidly with -- nothing.

  He stared at his hand, sunk to the wrist into Will's face. Yet he felt nothing but an icy cold. He blinked, wondering what he had eaten, or drank, to produce such hallucinations.

  "Care to try again?" Will asked.

  Micah slowly pulled back his hand, watching it emerge whole from the left side of Will's jaw. "Who. . . who are you?" he choked.

  "Ask Tessa."

  Then he was gone. Nothing but empty space where he had been, and a lingering chill in the air.

 
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