A willing spirit a ghost.., p.16
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.16

           Cynthia Sterling
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  The ladies of the church had arranged for dinner on the ground after the service. After some discussion over what to feed the Indians, they’d decided that even a savage wouldn’t say no to fried chicken and biscuits, with assorted vegetables and desserts on the side. From the looks of the heaping platters of food being passed around, Micah suspected half the chickens in the county had been sacrificed for the feast.

  Midway through the meal, Sun Bear stood and declared he wanted to make a speech. Everyone looked up from their chicken and eyed him curiously. “Of course, of course.” Reverend Deering rose, beaming. “By all means, let our guest speak.”

  Micah didn’t bother to tell him the chief intended to talk whether he had permission or not. He set aside his chicken leg and told Sun Bear he was ready to bring his words to his white hosts.

  It was a good speech, in the Indian way. Sun Bear complimented the food, saying that for such a skinny, sickly looking bunch, the paleface women knew how to put on a feed. With a straight face, Micah translated this into suitably flowery praise.

  Sun Bear said Crow-Man’s speech had been interesting, and it seemed they all had some things in common. The custom of giving each other horses was a new one for them, but never let it be said his people couldn’t learn new customs, especially when they involved free livestock.

  Reverend Deering wore a confused look. The chief’s interpretation of the sermon was probably not quite what he had intended to get across.

  Sun Bear wound up asking the whites to be guests at his camp the next full moon. The women could cook up some buffalo and prairie dog stew, and they’d pass around the pipe and trade stories.

  Micah relayed the invitation, leaving out specifics about the menu. The men and women of Pony Springs traded uncomfortable expressions. Inviting the Indians onto their territory was one thing, but visiting the reservation was something else altogether. It would be interesting to see how Reverend Deering would smooth over this one.

  But Micah wouldn’t be around to find out about that, would he?

  Sun Bear sat down to a smattering of polite applause. Micah looked at his chicken. He’d lost his appetite. Maybe he should go ahead and leave now, while everyone was occupied. No one would notice.

  He circled around the chapel, intending to cross the pasture and work his way back to the barn. But he hadn’t gone far before Tessa hurried up to meet him. “I need your help, quickly,” she said.

  “What is it?” Her face was flushed, and she looked as if she’d been running. Alarmed, he took her by the shoulders. “Is something wrong?”

  She shook her head. “I need you to kidnap Margery.”

  “You need me to what?” He dropped his hands and stepped back.

  “I know how we can get Alan to see what a mistake he’s making. You just need to keep her from getting on that stage this afternoon and take her someplace secluded. I’ll take care of the major.”

  Micah stared at her. “Isn’t that what started them fighting in the first place?”

  “This is different. I just want to get them together so they can talk things over.”

  “Do you know what the major will do when he sees Margery with me? Are you trying to get me shot?”

  “That’s even better.” Her smile alarmed him. “Oh, I don’t mean your getting shot. It won’t come to that, I promise. But it won’t hurt the major to have jealousy working on him as well as fear.”

  He folded his arms over his chest. “I won’t do it.”

  “Micah, please!”

  “Why not get someone else, then? One of the men from town?”

  “Because I can trust you. And I know Margery will go with you.”

  “What are you going to do while I’m kidnapping Margery?”

  She grinned. “I’m going to kidnap the major.”

  Will sidled up to Deering, who was working his way among the Indians, smiling and shaking hands and prattling along in English they couldn’t understand. As if sensing Will’s presence, the Indians began to give the preacher a wide berth. Or maybe it was just the good reverend’s overly eager expression that drove them away.

  “You’re supposed to be paying attention to Tessa,” Will said abruptly.

  Deering jumped and put a hand to his heart. “Tessa? Oh, Mrs. Bright. Yes, um, I was just getting to that, Lord.”

  “She’ll make a fine wife, Deering. A real helpmate.” That was a nice Biblical word that ought to appeal to the preacher.

  “Where is she, Lord?” Deering looked around the crowded gathering.

  “Last I saw, she was headed into the trees, over behind the horses.”

  Deering straightened his shoulders and brushed off his coat. He wore a determined look, as if he was preparing to deliver a sermon, or testify to a cranky unbeliever. Not exactly the face of a courting man, but perhaps Tessa could soften him up. Will followed at a distance.

  Will followed at a distance. He’d leave the couple alone as soon as he saw they were headed in the right direction. After all, he’d promised Tessa her privacy.

  Deering found Tessa next to her wagon, which was backed up to the edge of the trees. “Oh, Reverend Deering!” The looked across the wagon bed at him, startled. Then she bent over and tugged at something on the ground.

  “What are you doing back there?” Deering craned his head to see around the wagon.

  “Are you all right?”

  “Just fine. As long as you’re here, could you, um, help me with something?”

  “Of course.” He walked around the wagon toward her. About that time, Will spotted the man on the ground. An Army officer, judging by his blue coat and polished boots. He was bound and gagged and sending Tessa murderous looks.

  “Major Finch!” Deering gasped. “What happened?” He bent and started to release the gag.

  “Don’t do that, Reverend.” Tessa put a restraining hand on the preacher’s arm. “It took me a quarter hour to get him trussed up properly. Could you help me get him into the wagon?”

  Deering stared at her, his mouth working, but no sound came out. “Mrs. Bright, I don’t understand,” he finally managed. “Has the major done something wrong? Has he harmed you in some way?”

  “Not exactly.” She bent and took hold of the major’s arm. “Now, if you’ll just get his other arm, we’ll settle him on those blankets in the back of the wagon.”

  Protesting all the while, Deering bent and helped her. Finch didn’t make it easy on them. He dug in his heels and refused to budge.

  “Can you get his legs, Reverend?” Tessa asked. “He’s not cooperating.”

  “Mrs. Bright, you cannot be serious. We must untie him at once.”

  Holding back his laughter, Will moved forward and clamped his hands around Finch’s ankles. The major’s eyes widened, but he ceased his struggles.

  “That’s better.” Tessa climbed into the back of the wagon. “Now, Reverend, if you’ll just slide him forward. That’s it. I’ll put these blankets under his head. Is that comfortable, Major?”

  The major’s look would have singed a lesser woman. Tessa ignored him, climbed forward, and took the reins. “Thank you for all your help, Reverend,” she said. “I promise I’ll explain everything later.”

  “Better go with her,” Will whispered.

  “I’m coming with you.” Deering climbed onto the wagon seat beside her, while Will settled himself on the major’s legs, just to make sure he didn’t escape.

  “Ask her how she managed to tie and gag a man twice her size,” Will whispered as the wagon started forward.

  “Mrs. Bright, how did you manage to overcome a man of the major’s size and experience?” Deering asked.

  She blushed. “I confess I waited until he went back into the woods to – well, you know. And while his back was to me, I sort of lassoed him.”

  “Lassoed him?” Deering’s own face was quite red by now.

  “I tossed a rope over his shoulders and pulled it tight.” She glanced back at her prone passe
nger. “Then I stuffed the gag in his mouth and tied his hands. Oh, and of course I buttoned his pants.”

  Deering made a choking noise. Will looked down. Sure enough, the major’s trousers were neatly buttoned. He shook with silent laughter. When had this wild streak grown in his demure little Tessa? He smiled. He guessed it was true: she had grown up and somehow he hadn’t realized it.

  “Where are we going?” Deering asked as the wagon bounced along a faint trail across the prairie.

  “Somewhere private.”

  Will looked around, trying to get his bearings. They were following the creek, roughly to the west. They crossed an old buffalo wallow and headed for a low line of hills. Ah. He knew where he was now. A place he hadn’t thought of in years.

  He leaned forward to address Deering. “Don’t forget what I told you,” he whispered.

  The preacher cleared his throat and looked at Tessa. “That was very impressive back there, the way you dispatched the major,” he said. “I mean, it’s not something just anyone could have done…not, of course, that they would want to…” His voice trailed off, and he looked dismayed.

  “Are you all right, Reverend?” Tessa glanced at him. “You look ill.”

  “I…I’m fine.” He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “Dinner was delicious. I’ve always been partial to fried chicken.”

  “I’m glad you liked it. But I didn’t make the chicken.”

  “Oh. Well, whatever you did make, I’m sure it was delicious as well.”

  Will sighed. Didn’t the man know anything about women?

  Tessa stopped the wagon in front of a log-fronted dugout half-hidden in a hillside. “What is this?” Deering asked. “Why are we stopping?”

  Tessa set the wagon brake and climbed down. “This is the dugout where my husband and I lived when we first married. We built the house closer to the road, so this has been abandoned for a while now. No one will bother us out here.”

  Will smiled. He had happy memories of those days when he and Tessa were newlyweds. She’d made him feel like a young man then. He tapped Deering on the shoulder. “Tessa needs a new husband to look after her,” he said.

  Deering nodded and scrambled down from the wagon.

  Tessa knocked on the door to the dugout. It opened, and Micah Fox emerged. His shirt was torn and his hair had come undone. “What happened?” Tessa gasped.

  “She didn’t want to come with me at first. She finally calmed down when I told her this was all your idea.”

  “Who are you talking about?” Reverend Deering asked.

  “What’s he doing here?” Micah asked.

  “I needed someone to help me with the major.”

  “Who else is with you?” Deering asked again.

  “Margery is in there,” Tessa said.

  A strangled cry came from the back of the wagon, and the major began kicking at the wagon boards. Tessa and Micah rushed over and hauled him to the ground. “Calm down, Major. She’s perfectly all right,” Tessa said. “Reverend Deering, will you open the door, please?”

  Deering held the door open and Tessa and Micah shoved the major inside. “You can untie him after we’re gone, Margery,” Tessa called as she and Micah wedged a tree trunk against the door. “Now you two talk things over. We’ll be back in the morning.”

  Micah fitted a large rock against one end of the tree trunk, “This is crazy,” he said.

  “They’ve been avoiding each other for weeks,” Tessa said. “All they really need is time to sit down and talk. They love each other, after all. They’re intelligent people. I’m convinced they can work this out.”

  “And if they don’t?” Micah asked.

  She shrugged. “We’ll come back in the morning and let them out. The major won’t speak to me, but I doubt if he’ll tell anyone what happened.”

  Micah nodded. “He’ll be too embarrassed.” He helped Tessa into the wagon and climbed up beside her. Deering took a seat in the back. “What about his men?” Micah asked. “Won’t they wonder about him?”

  “I left a note for Lieutenant Hamilton. It says he’s taken a day of personal leave to work things out with his wife.”

  Deering had been silent, a dazed look on his face as he listened to them. Will nudged him. “Remember what you’re supposed to do.’

  “Oh, yes,” Deering cleared his throat. “All this talk of marriage has made me think.”

  Tessa and Micah both turned, questioning looks on their faces. “About what?” Tessa asked.

  “A woman like you, Mrs. Bright – young, beautiful, with a ranch to run – well, you need a husband.”

  Tessa stared at him. Micah glowered, knotting the reins in his hands.

  “This concern has been on my mind for…for a while now,” Deering continued. “And after much prayer it has come to me that the solution is…”

  “Yes?” Tessa asked.

  “What?” Micah growled.

  “Well, for you and Mr. Fox to marry, of course.” Deering smiled, clearly pleased with himself. “It’s obvious you’re fond of one another and you work well together. It’s a match made in Heaven.”

  Will couldn’t believe it. Of all the men he could have chosen for Tessa, he’d selected an idiot! He groaned and left in disgust.


  Tessa stared at Revered Deering. She couldn’t have heard him right. Marry Micah? The words made her heart race, though whether from elation or panic, she couldn’t be certain. She glanced at Micah; he looked as stunned as she felt.

  “You think about it,” the preacher said. “I’ll be happy to perform the ceremony whenever you’re ready. Now if you’ll drop me off back at the chapel, I need to help with the cleanup.”

  They left him at the chapel and rode back to the ranch house in silence. More than once, Tessa opened her mouth to speak, but she could find no words to express her feelings. Maybe Micah didn’t want to marry her. Maybe he was trying to find a way to tell her so. Maybe he was being sensible, realizing it could never work out.

  Ahead of them, the setting sun painted the sky with streaks of pink and umber. Was Reverend Deering right? Were she and Micah a match made in Heaven?

  If only she knew how Micah felt about all this! Out of the corner of her eye, she watched his impassive face. He stared straight ahead, as if the wheel horse’s hind end was suddenly the most fascinating sight he had ever come across.

  Why didn’t he say anything?

  He halted the wagon by the barn, and she leapt to the ground before he could come around to help her down. If he didn’t want to talk about it, she wasn’t going to make him. She wasn’t going to beg a marriage proposal out of him. Not daring to glance his way, she raced to the house and up the steps.

  Upstairs in her room, fumbling with the hooks on her dress, she thought of what a long time had passed since she had put it one this morning. Not so much physical time, but she felt as if she had lived years in the space of a day. What had possessed her to tell wild tales to Indians one moment and to kidnap an Army major the next?

  She folded her dress over a chair, then sat on the side of the bed. What were Margery and Major Finch doing right now? She knew what she’d be up to if she and Micah were alone in that dugout.

  She stood and walked to the dresser and began to remove the pins from her hair. A sad-eyed woman stared back at her from the mirror, a woman in the prime of her life who today had decided to stop waiting for others to act and had instead taken action herself.

  She glanced out the window, at the last pink light of sunset. The time for action wasn’t over yet. Maybe Reverend Deering was right. Maybe she and Micah were meant to be together, but like Margery and the major, they were both too stubborn to admit it.

  She laid the brush aside, then went to the wash basin and filled it from the pitcher. Tonight, before it was too late, she would go to Micah and find out once and for all if they had a chance together.

  Micah parked the buggy and fed and watered the horses. Then he spread his bedrol
l out on his bunk. It was too late to set out now. He’d have to wait until first light and leave then.

  He stripped off his shirt and lay back against the blankets. It was too early to sleep, but the tension of the day had drained him. He smiled, remembering Sun Bear’s speech, Reverend Deering’s sermon, and the look on Margery’s face when he told her he intended to abduct her. But he couldn’t keep his thoughts away from Tessa for long. He’d waited for her to say what she thought of Deering’s advice, but she’d ignored it, as if it was too far from possible to deserve her consideration.

  Well, he knew that, didn’t he? A respectable woman couldn’t marry a half-breed, any more than a half-breed could be accepted by people in a town like Pony Springs. That was the way of the world, and there was nothing he could do about it.

  On this bitter thought he fell asleep, though his dreams were filled with images of Tessa, all of them pleasant.

  He opened his eyes and saw Tessa standing before him. Silver moonlight flooded the room, silhouetting her figure and making her gown a diaphanous veil caressing her feminine curves.

  He smiled at this dream and reached for her, determined to enjoy in sleep what he could not have in real life. Her hand touched his, trembling. He raised her fluttering fingers to his lips and caressed each one, soothing her as he would soothe a nervous colt.

  Her skin was soft, even the callouses from hard work seeming delicate in his large hand. He kissed the tip of her forefinger, then drew it into his mouth, savoring the taste of her, the delicate scent of her skin.

  A breathy moan escaped her lips. “Micah,” she whispered, and with a jolt, he realized he was not dreaming.

  Slowly, reluctantly, he drew away from her. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

  “I came because I feared you wouldn’t come to me.” Her voice strengthened, and her expression grew more determined. “I want to be with you, Micah. Tonight. All night.”

  The words stopped his heart. He wouldn’t insult her by asking if she was sure. His eyes told him she had never been more sure. He took her hand again and drew her to him, pressing her against the length of him, savoring the feel of her in his arms, never wanting to let her go.

  But holding was not enough for her. She dipper her head and kissed his shoulder, feathering moist kisses all along his collarbone, down his chest to suckle at the erect nub of his nipple. He buried his hands in her hair and held her there, until the force of his pleasure was close to pain. Then he swept her into his arms and carried her to his bed.

  He sat her down on the side of the bunk and began to unfasten the buttons at the top of her gown. She put her hands up to help, but he pushed them away. “I’ve wanted to do this for too long to be denied the pleasure,” he said as he peeled the fabric away from one full breast.

  Moonlight blanched her skin to silvery cream. He weighed the fullness of her in his palm, then traced his thumb across the taut pink tip. She jerked, a spasm that shook the bed, and he smiled. “I’ve not forgotten how sweet these are,” he murmured, and began to kiss and suckle each breast in turn.

  The gown in a puddle around her waist, he lavished attention on her breasts until she moaned and writhed in his arms. Still holding her close, he pushed the gown up over her thighs and curled her legs around him, so that the damp curls at the juncture of her thighs brushed against his stomach.

  “When you first came in, I thought I was dreaming,” he said. “But no dream could be this sweet.” He kissed her, long and deep, as if their tongues could say in this way everything that couldn’t be expressed within the limitation of spoken words.

  Breathless, they broke apart. “Take your clothes off,” she whispered. “Please.”

  The plea was almost his undoing. He moved out of her arms and stripped his trousers off in one swift motion. He stood in the beam of moonlight, letting her look at him, his arousal straining toward her.

  Her laughter was joy distilled, and an answering mirth rose within him. He bent, tugged at the gown bunched around her waist, and sent it sailing over his shoulder. Then she held out her arms and he fell onto the bed beside her, reaching for her and rolling her over on top of him.

  Her eyes widened in surprise as he hugged her close. “What are you doing?” she asked.

  “The bed’s so narrow and I’m so much bigger than you, I think it’ll be more comfortable this way.” He put his hands on her hips and adjusted her so that she straddled his thighs, his arousal straining against her. The pleasure was near pain, but he struggled to restrain himself, wanting to love her slowly – to make her half-mad with passion, erasing the memory of every other time she had made love, wanting her to think only of him.

  “I…I’ve never done it this way,” she admitted.

  He grinned. “Good.” He raised his head and drew the tip of her breast into his mouth once more, eliciting a gasp of pleasure.

  He used every skill he possessed to arouse her to the fullest, and watched her face as he worked, reveling in the emotions he saw there – love and wonder and a desperate longing he wanted more than anything to satisfy. She moaned and strained against him, until he feared he might lose control altogether. Only then did he grasp her hips and nudge her away from him.


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