A willing spirit a ghost.., p.7
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       A Willing Spirit, A Ghostly Romance, p.7

           Cynthia Sterling
 
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CHAPTER SEVEN

  Tessa overslept the next morning and awoke feeling foggy and heavy-headed. As she lay staring up at the ceiling, the memory of last night's events came rushing back -- Margery Finch and the party and most especially the kiss she'd shared with Micah in the barn.

  What had she been thinking, to throw herself at him that way? She'd been so relieved to discover he hadn't abandoned her that she might very well have driven him off altogether.

  She rolled over and hugged the pillow to her chest, as if she could somehow contain and control her turbulent emotions. How could she separate the physical desire she felt for Micah as a man from the certain knowledge that a relationship with him would be utter foolishness?

  He recognized the folly in pursuing her, at least. She owed him a debt of thanks for that. How many other men would have taken advantage of her in her weakness, and never looked back?

  "Tessa?"

  His voice outside her bedroom door startled her. She grew still, scarcely breathing. What did he want from her here -- now?

  "Tessa?” He knocked, and his voice grew louder. "Tessa, you'd better get up. Someone's coming up the drive."

  Thoughts of a visitor finding her in disarray propelled her out of bed. She dressed hurriedly and raked a comb through her hair, then twisted it into a loose knot and pinned it in place. She thrust her feet into shoes as she tied her apron in back, and hurtled down the stairs two at a time, arriving breathless on the front porch in time to see an Army ambulance lurching up the road, escorted by a soldier on horseback.

  "Who is it?" Micah asked. He stood at the end of the porch, keeping his distance from her.

  She felt awkward, unable to meet his eyes, grateful for the distraction of a visitor. She glanced back at the coach, and the soldier, who she now recognized as Lieutenant Hamilton. "I believe Mrs. Finch has come to call," she said.

  She knew she looked a mess, her clothes wrinkled, her hair half-undone. But then, even dressed up, she looked like a dowdy sage hen next to Margery's peacock plumage. Nothing to do but smile and make the best of it.

  Lieutenant Hamilton dismounted and helped Margery from the carriage. Was the handsome lieutenant acting on orders, or had he, too, been lured into Margery's retinue of admirers?

  Margery rewarded her escort with a radiant smile, and a gentle squeeze from her gloved fingers. "Tessa, Dear. I thought we'd never get here," she said, fanning herself with the familiar ostrich feathers. She was dressed all in pink today, a frosty shade that brought out the roses in her cheeks.

  "I'm glad to see you again," Tessa said. "Please come in and I'll make tea."

  "Oh, but I want to look around first," Margery said, her eyes searching over Tessa's shoulder. "And I'm anxious to meet your Mr. Fox."

  Tessa stifled a twinge of irritation. Weren't there enough men at the fort, that Margery didn't have to travel cross-country to find another one? She looked over her shoulder to the porch, but Micah was nowhere in sight.

  "I'd be happy to introduce you," she said, turning back to her guests. "But he seems to have disappeared."

  "Then we'll just have to look for him," Margery said. She set off toward the barn, Lieutenant Hamilton trailing obediently.

  Tessa hurried to keep up with the two of them. "Perhaps if we went into the house and waited --" she began.

  "Mr. Fox!” Margery called, stepping through the corral gate. "Hello! Mr. Fox?” She started across the corral, but her progress was blocked by a pony. She glared at the horse. "Shoo!" she ordered, waving her fan. "Get out of my way."

  The pony rolled its eyes and backed away. Tessa bit her tongue to keep from laughing. Margery Finch was obviously a woman who was used to getting her own way, from man or beast.

  Tessa followed Margery and Lieutenant Hamilton into the barn. "Mr. Fox!" Margery called.

  "He must have ridden out on an errand," Tessa offered. "Come in and have some tea and perhaps you'll have a chance to meet him later."

  Margery's eyes searched the barn. "That's a fine saddle," she said, spotting Micah's silver-studded rig. "Is it yours?"

  "It belongs to Mr. Fox," she confessed.

  Margery smiled in triumph. "Then he's not likely to have ridden off without it.” She moved through the barn, poking her head into the stalls.

  Tessa stood in the doorway, hands on her hips. "Mrs. Finch, if I didn't know any better, I'd swear you never came to visit me at all," she said after a moment.

  Margery turned and hurried back to Tessa's side. "Of course I came here to see you.” She put her arm around Tessa's shoulders. "But I have a confession to make.”

  "A confession?” Tessa regarded her warily.

  She nodded. "Do you know I've been out here on the frontier three whole weeks and I haven't seen a single Indian? It's true! My husband is an Indian fighter, and I've never even seen one! How can I be a good military wife if I don't even know what the enemy looks like?"

  Tessa stared at her, unsure whether to laugh or applaud this performance. "What does Mr. Fox have to do with that?"

  "He's half-Indian, isn't he? He's the best chance I've had so far.” She stepped back and began to fan herself. "Truly, I thought if I met your Mr. Fox, I wouldn't be so -- so terrified of the very thought of Indians. I almost didn't come out to the fort, I was so afraid of being scalped in my sleep."

  There was that phrase again. Tessa was getting awfully tired of hearing it. She eyed Margery Finch warily. The major's wife did not appear to be a woman who was afraid of anything. "In a fort full of soldiers, I think that would be unlikely," she said drily.

  "I know it's illogical, but believe me, I have nightmares.” Margery's fan beat double-time. "When I heard you had Mr. Fox out here, gentle and peaceable as you please, I thought to myself, 'Now that's what you need to be able to sleep soundly at night. You need to meet one of these fellows and see that they're men like anyone else, not two-headed monsters.'“ She smiled. "So I rushed out here as soon as I could. I have to meet Mr. Fox if I'm ever to sleep soundly again."

  It was quite a performance, Tessa had to admit, complete with dramatic sighs and heaving breasts. If Micah was within earshot, she hoped he didn't hurt himself laughing.

  "Mr. Fox doesn't appear to be around here anywhere," Lieutenant Hamilton said.

  Margery looked around the barn. "Perhaps he's fallen and hurt himself. He could even be in trouble. We'd better split up and look for him. Derek, you and Mrs. Bright can search the house and the area behind it. I'll take the barn and corral and the front of the house."

  The next thing Tessa knew, she was being pushed out the door with Lieutenant Hamilton. "We'd better do as she says, Ma'am," Hamilton said. "There's no reasoning with her when she gets like this.” He walked with her toward the house. "Besides, it's a long ride out here. I'd be much obliged for that tea."

  Tessa glanced over her shoulder at Margery, who was looking behind haystacks and wheelbarrows as if she expected to find Micah shrunk to the size of a chicken. She laughed. "I could use a cup of tea myself."

  #

  Micah recognized Margery Watson as soon as she descended from the Army ambulance. She was more luxuriously dressed than she had been the last time he'd seen her, and she seemed more voluptuous than ever, but he'd have known that voice, and that red hair, anywhere.

  He crouched in the hayloft, listening to the search below. He had to pinch himself to keep from laughing at her preposterous story. Margery had always been a great actress. She was so beautiful, and men wanted to believe whatever story she told them.

  He didn't think Tessa would fall for the act, but who could fight the whirlwind force that was Margery?

  He leaned back against the hay and closed his eyes. So she'd married a major, had she? An older man, no doubt, with plenty of family money to buy her fancy hats and pretty clothes. And one so smitten that she'd be able to carry on with all manner of young officers, all the while convincing him he was the only man for her.

  "Sleeping, Micah? How can you sleep when I'
m so near?” Margery's head poked up through the trapdoor leading to the loft, followed by her voluptuous body. She leaned over and planted a kiss full on his mouth, but he pulled away.

  She pouted. "Is that any way to say hello to an old friend?"

  He sat up. "Hello, Margery. What are you doing here?"

  "Haven't you heard? I came to see a real live Indian. You.” She gently touched his blackened eye. "What happened here?"

  He pushed her hand away. "A little disagreement with some men in town."

  She grinned. "Well, I'm sure they got the worst of it.” She looked around the loft. "This brings back memories, doesn't it? We used to make love in a hayloft like this.” She moved closer to him. "I've never forgotten those afternoons we spent together," she said in a throaty voice. "It's never been the same with anyone else."

  "Surely some have come close," he said. "The major, maybe?"

  She smiled. "Well, yes, Alan is a dear. But he's always so busy.” She reached out and put her hand on his thigh. "You don't know how thrilled I was to hear you were so near. I thought I would die before I could get to see you.” The hand moved up toward his crotch, and her perfume filled his nostrils.

  He moved over, freeing himself from her grasp. "We'd better join the others for tea."

  She frowned. "Don't worry about them. Derek will keep little Miss Tessa occupied as long as I like.” She reached out and unfastened the top button of his shirt. "We have plenty of time."

  He captured her wrist. "I'm not interested in a married woman, Margery. Sorry."

  She sat back, rubbing her wrist. "Since when are you so moral?"

  "Since I understood how dangerous it was to steal anything marked 'Property, U.S. Army.'"

  "I'm no one's property, Micah Fox!"

  "Tell that to the major.” He moved past her toward the trap door.

  She clutched his arm. "It's that Bright woman, isn't it? Micah, you've fallen in love with her!"

  He shook his head. What did fickle Margery know about love? As if what he felt for Tessa could be so easily defined. "It was good to see you again," he said. "Come have some tea."

  She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. "I was only hoping for a fling, you know. I won't stand in the way of true love -- if there is such a thing!” She moved past him and started down the ladder. "But if you ever get to missing me, you know where I'll be."

  He laughed, and followed her down into the barn. "Look who I found!" she called, hurrying toward the house. "Derek! Mrs. Bright! Come see!"

  #

  Tessa had to cover her mouth with her hand to hide her amusement at the sight of a glowering Micah being towed across the yard by a gleeful Margery. From the expression on his face, you'd have thought the man was being dragged to torture, instead of tea with an undeniably beautiful woman. "He was taking a nap in the hayloft," Margery announced as she and Micah reached the porch.

  Tessa shot Micah a questioning look. What had made him hide from Margery that way?

  "Mr. Fox, we meet again.” Lieutenant Hamilton stepped forward, his handsome face marred by a stern frown. "We were at Fort Inge together, do you remember?"

  "Hello, Lieutenant Hamilton.” Micah's expression was unrevealing, but Tessa heard the coldness in his voice. That was it! Micah had been avoiding the lieutenant, not Margery.

  Fearing a confrontation, she stepped between the two men. "Shall we go inside and pour the tea?" She forced a wide smile to her lips and nodded to her guests. "Perhaps Mrs. Finch will tell us more about her stay back east."

  "That's a splendid idea.” Margery, who still clung to Micah's arm as if she feared he might flee at any moment, led the way up the steps and across the porch. Only when they were all inside did she release hold of Micah, who immediately moved away from her.

  Lieutenant Hamilton had already helped Tessa carry the tea things into the parlor. She took her station by the tray, and Margery settled next to her on the sofa. The lieutenant and Micah sat in chairs pulled up before the little tea table, glowering at each other like two bulldogs spoiling for a fight.

  "What have you been doing with yourself since you left the fort?" Lieutenant Hamilton asked as he accepted a cup of tea from Tessa.

  Micah glared at him. "Are you addressing that question to me?"

  "Yes, I was, Mister Fox.” Lieutenant Hamilton clenched his jaw, as if the polite form of address taxed him.

  "I've been working.” Micah added two lumps of sugar to his own cup.

  "Working where?"

  "Around."

  Tessa glared at the men, wishing polite convention and concern for her carpet didn't prevent her from dumping the rest of the tea pot over them. Margery Finch came to her rescue.

  "Remember where you are, gentlemen," she chided. "We ladies refuse to be bored with talk of the Army or past events we ourselves weren't involved in.” She turned toward Tessa. "I'm anxious to hear all about the activities of the townspeople. Alan so wants me to make friends here."

  Tessa gave her a grateful smile. "I'm afraid I haven't been involved much in the goings on in town of late."

  "But whyever not? You're so pretty and sweet. Just the type of person I imagine as having dozens of friends. Not at all like me."

  Tessa's mouth fell open. She took a gulp of tea in an attempt to wash down her confusion. Margery Finch, friendless? The woman had more personality that half a dozen ordinary women. "Well, ah, I've been. . . sort of keeping to myself lately," she stammered.

  Margery's expression was just as lovely in sorrow as in delight. "Of course. How thoughtless of me. You're a young widow. Of course you haven't been very active socially.” She set aside her teacup and picked up her fan. "Forgive me, dear. You'll learn soon enough that I often speak without thinking. And often live to regret it."

  "Hah!"

  Alarmed, Tessa stared at Micah. He began coughing, pounding his chest. "Something. . . caught in my throat," he gasped.

  "For a real live Indian, Mr. Fox seems harmless enough to me," Margery said. She helped herself to another cookie. "Or perhaps it's just you who has tamed him, Mrs. Bright."

  The words were innocent enough, but Tessa found herself blushing.She smoothed her apron across her knees and searched for another topic of conversation. A shelf of books caught her eye. "Actually, I have just started getting involved in some things in town," she said. "For instance, some women from church are forming a group to raise money to build a library in Pony Springs."

  "What a marvelous idea." Margery turned to the men. "Do you like to read, gentlemen?"

  Micah nodded. Lieutenant Hamilton shifted in his chair. "I'm quite a fan of Shakespeare, myself," he said.

  "He's that British playwright, isn't he?" Margery shook her head. "A bit too stuffy for me.” She wafted her fan in front of her. "But give me a good novel and I'm lost for hours. Do you think your library ladies would allow me to join in the fun?"

  Tessa had a feeling Margery would be the most fun in any group. She tried to imagine the flamboyant Mrs. Finch and Trudy Babcock in the same room. The picture was quite appealing. "I'm certain they would," she said. "In fact, we're having a meeting tomorrow. Why don't you come with me?"

  "I'd love to. How sweet of you to offer.”

  "I'd be happy to escort you to the meeting, Mrs. Finch.” Lieutenant Hamilton sat up straighter.

  Margery waved away the offer. "Never mind, Derek. I prefer to keep this a ladies' outing.” She beamed at Tessa. "Something I haven't done much of before."

  #

  So the next afternoon, Tessa found herself ensconced once more in an Army ambulance, with Margery across from her. The Captain's wife looked only slightly more demure today, in a dress of dark blue, with a tight fitting jacket and a feather-trimmed hat. "I hope this is all right," she said, tugging at the jacket and smoothing the lapels. "I feel so. . . plain."

  Tessa smiled, charmed by this unexpected nervousness in a woman who seemed so confident most of the time. "You couldn't be plain in an
old feed sack."

  "Oh, you're sweet to say so. But I did try to tone down just a little. I want these ladies to like me."

  "Why wouldn't they like you?” Despite Margery's flamboyance and flirtatiousness, she had an underlying sweetness Tessa found irresistible.

  Margery leaned back against the coach cushions and picked up her fan. "Some people dislike me just because I'm beautiful. Or because I'm vain and loud and I adore being the center of attention.” She pursed her lips in a rueful expression. "I know I'm all those things, but that doesn't mean I don't have a good heart. I can care about other people, but no one seems to believe me when I do."

  This frank confession touched Tessa. On impulse, she leaned forward and covered Margery's hand with her own. "I'm sure the ladies of Pony Springs will be charmed to meet you," she said.

  "I hope you're right.” She smiled, and Tessa returned the expression.

  When the coach drew up before Ada Drake's home, where the meeting was to take place, Margery leaned forward and embraced Tessa in a quick hug. "Thanks for listening to me prattle on. I feel better just knowing you're walking in at my side.”

  They did walk in side by side, and the ladies seemed genuinely delighted to welcome the major's wife to their committee. "It's good to see young women taking an interest in the community," Mrs. Drake said as she poured tea. She sat across from Tessa and Margery in the ornately furnished parlor of her home just off the town's main street. The room was crammed with all manner of gilt-edged nick-nacks and dark, velvet-upholstered furniture. Tessa sat next to Margery on an overstuffed settee, her feet braced against the floor to keep from slipping off.

  "I want to do what I can to help.” Margery helped herself to several cookies and passed the tray to Tessa.

  "And we're glad you've decided to join us, Mrs. Bright.” Mrs. Drake smiled at her over her teacup.

  "I'd given up ever getting to really know you." Mamie Tucker perched on a footstool, her skirts making a graceful swirl around her. "You seemed so intent on keeping to yourself all the time. But I suppose now that it was more your husband's doing."

  Tessa stared at her, stunned into silence. Was Mrs. Tucker saying she thought Tessa's isolation was her own fault? She had never associated with people in town because they had made it clear in the beginning that she was not welcome.

  Could she have had it wrong all this time?

  "Speaking of husbands, I heard there was a little ruckus over at the Red Dog Saloon last night.” Ammie Smith, at one end of a fainting couch against the back wall, dunked a cookie in her teacup and ate it with relish. "Word is Gabe Emerson owes Emmett Hardy for another mirror."

  "Only because he was provoked.” Trudy Babcock gave the schoolteacher a frosty glare, then turned her cold gaze on Tessa. "I heard that half-breed you hired, Mr. Fox, got into a disagreement with Mr. Emerson and several other men."

  Tessa felt as if she'd swallowed rocks. She'd never thought to ask Micah exactly what had sparked the fight that led to his black eye.

  "What were they fighting about?" Mrs. Tucker asked.

  "Mr. Emerson asked Fox to leave the saloon.” Trudy glanced at Tessa. "Everybody knows they don't serve Indians there. But Mr. Fox had the nerve to tell my husband and some others that he didn't have to have their permission to drink there. Then Mr. Emerson said the crazy redskin came at him with a knife. Of course he had to defend himself."

  In the shocked silence that followed, Tessa thought Trudy looked pleased with her success in garnering everyone's attention. She searched her mind for some sharp retort, some defense of Micah that wouldn't be misinterpreted and turned against her.

  "These cookies are delicious, Mrs. Drake.” Margery leaned forward and helped herself to another. "I must have the recipe."

  Tessa gave her friend a grateful look. "Yes, I'd love to have it too. What do you do to make it so light?"

  "It's the cream tartar," Ada Drake said. "I'll be happy to give you the recipe. It's really very easy."

  "I manage to burn even easy recipes," Margery said, laughing. "But I'd like to give it to our striker. He can work wonders in the kitchen."

  "I'll write it down for you before you leave," Mrs. Drake answered with a friendly smile.

  "Ladies, quiet please.” Trudy tapped on her water glass with a teaspoon, then rose to address the group. "It is time to begin our official meeting.” She walked to the front of the room. "As you know, we're here to discuss our community's need for a library. I feel, if we all work together, we can make our vision a reality. A lending library will improve the literacy of all our citizens and provide an invaluable resource for the education of our children."

  Everyone applauded and within short order, officers were elected and duties assigned. Ada Drake was selected to serve as president, while Trudy headed up the building committee. To her surprise, Tessa found herself appointed to a fund-raising committee with Margery. "I'm sure Alan will make a donation to get us started," Margery said. "And we could ask some of the businessmen in town."

  Mamie Tucker smiled. "I'm sure you'll be the perfect person to persuade them to contribute," she said.

  "No man would turn her down," someone observed, and they all laughed. But it was a gentle laugher, among friends.

  By the time the meeting was adjourned, Tessa felt like a child at Christmas. Her gifts this day had been the friendship of these women, except, of course, the sour-faced Trudy. In spite of that snub, she carried a feeling of acceptance with her out the door. Happiness welled up inside her, sweet as warm molasses.

  "Well now, that went pretty well, didn't it?" Margery said, settling in the coach once more.

  Tessa smiled. "Yes, it did."

  "Alan will be pleased.” She wafted her fan. "He's been after me to make friends in town. Women friends."

  Tessa looked down, pretending not to notice Margery's emphasis on women. "What he doesn't understand is that he's the friend I want the most," Margery added.

  Tessa glanced up, surprised at the pensive tone of her friend's voice. "He's always so busy," Margery continued. "Always off on patrol, or working on reports. He never has much time for me."

  Tessa had a sudden picture of beautiful, flamboyant Margery, fawned over by everyone but the man she needed attention from the most. What better way to wound someone with such a flirtatious nature than by ignoring them? The poor major probably had no idea what he was doing. "I'm sure he doesn't mean to hurt you," Tessa said. "I know he loves you very much. If you could have seen the way he spoke about you --"

  "Yes, he loves me.” Margery nodded. "But he doesn't need me. And the truth is, I do need him, so very much.” She looked away, staring out the window, but not before Tessa saw the shine in her eyes that spoke of unshed tears.

  "Oh, listen to me. Going on and on about myself.” Margery turned to face her again, bright smile once more in place. "Let's talk about you. You and that handsome Mr. Fox."

  Tessa shifted in the seat. "There's nothing to talk about," she said. "He's helping me with the ranch work."

  "Yes, but what else?” Margery leaned forward, her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. "I mean, you're a young widow, he's a good-looking, healthy man . . ."

  Tessa flushed. "I don't know what you're talking about," she said stiffly, though of course, she had a very good idea.

  Margery sat back, smile faded. "I've gone and offended you, haven't I? I didn't mean to at all. It's just that. . . well, seeing the way you looked at each other yesterday. . . I thought. . .” She shook her head. "Of course, it's absolutely none of my business anyway. Forget I asked."

  "What do you mean, the way we looked at each other?" Tessa blurted. Was she giving off some sort of silent signals? Could people tell just by looking that she and Micah had kissed?

  "You know.” Margery waved her hand. "You just looked like. . .like you were fond of each other."

  Tessa averted her gaze. "Micah and I are friends, of course."

  "Friendship is a very good start to
love, I'd say."

  Tessa's heart jumped in her chest at the word. "That's ridiculous. Impossible."

  Margery looked amused. "It's been possible since Adam and Eve, dear. It's what men and women are made for."

  "Micah and I could never be anything more than friends."

  Margery frowned. "Why not?"

  Tessa spread her hands in her lap. "You saw those women back there. They welcomed me. Made me a part of what they're doing. I've never had that before.” She looked at Margery, pleading for understanding. "Do you think they'd be so welcoming if I married a half-breed and lived with him openly?"

  "Whoa, Nelly.” Margery threw up her hands. "Who said anything about marriage?” She leaned over and patted Tessa's hand. "You poor thing. You've really got it bad, don't you?"

  Tessa closed her eyes, her cheeks burning. What had she done? "Don't worry," Margery said, still patting her. "Your secret is safe with me."

  #

  Will found Reverend Deering in the church, wearing a leather apron and polishing a pair of brass candlesticks. "Don't they have a sexton to do that sort of thing?" he asked, settling, invisibly, into the front pew.

  Deering almost dropped a candlestick. He set it carefully back on the altar and looked around. "Is someone there?" he asked.

  "I've got another job for you, Deering," Will said, choosing to ignore the question of his identity.

  Deering dropped to his knees, hands clasped in prayer. "Yes, Lord. Whatever you want me to do."

  "I think it's time you paid another visit to Tessa Bright."

  The preacher smiled. That was a good sign. "I was thinking that very thing myself, this morning, Lord.” His expression sobered. "Of course, that was probably due to the leading of your Spirit."

  "Maybe we can save that theological discussion for some other time," Will hurried on. "I want you to go visit Tessa Bright again and this time, pay attention to what you see out there. Look around the ranch and think about what you would do with it if it were yours.” A man with a good eye for horseflesh, like Deering here, would be sure to see the possibilities in the ranch. If Deering could fall in love with the ranch, persuading him to marry Tessa would be easy. "That ranch could be yours if you listen to me," he added, just to make sure the preacher got the point.

  "Of course I'll listen to you, Lord.” He hesitated for a moment, brow furrowed in concentration. "Should I talk to Micah Fox while I'm there, Lord?"

  "Fox?” What did he have to do with anything? "Why do you want to talk to him?"

  "I just thought he might give some. . . you know, useful information."

  Oh. That was all. Deering probably wanted to ask Fox about the horses, or the hayfields or something. "All right. Talk to him. But don't forget to talk to Tessa, too. A pretty woman like that deserves your attention."

  "Of course, Lord. Whatever you say.” He stayed on his knees, head bowed. Will realized he was waiting to be dismissed. "That's all, Deering. Amen. Go in peace. Get to work."

  Deering jumped to his feet and headed for the door. Will had a sudden vision of him galloping up to Tessa's doorstep still wearing the stained leather apron. "Deering!"

  The preacher froze in his tracks. "Yes Lord?"

  "Don't forget to put on a clean shirt and comb your hair."

  "Yes, Lord."

  Will watched him leave. This might take a little more effort than he'd first suspected. He decided to follow along, just in case the preacher got sidetracked along the way.

  An hour later, Reverend Deering, freshly shaved and combed and smelling of the cologne Will had 'accidentally' dumped on him, rode through Tessa's front gate.

  Tessa emerged from the barn, rake in hand, Micah right behind her. She had straw in her hair and manure on her shoes. Will groaned silently. He'd spent so much time getting the prospective groom ready, he'd forgotten to make sure the bride was equally presentable. Too bad he couldn't pull his God act on her. Knowing Tessa, though, she wouldn't listen at all. She'd developed a disturbing stubborn streak, of late.

  "Hello, Reverend Deering," she said as the preacher swung down off his horse. "What can I do for you this afternoon?"

  "I. . . I just felt the need to ride out here and. . . and talk to you.” He looked around him. "I wanted to see more of your ranch."

  Fox scowled at the preacher, but said nothing. The bruising around his eye had faded to a sickly yellow.

  "Well, I'm sort of busy right now.” Tessa looked down at her manure-caked gloves.

  "Please, Mrs. Bright. It's important. If I could just have a few moments of your time."

  She shrugged and began peeling off the gloves. "All right."

  Fox shook his head in disgust and went back into the barn.

  "Let's go for a walk.” Deering motioned out across the pasture. He tied his horse to the corral fence, then led the way toward the expanse of open land. Tessa fell into step beside him and Will trailed silently after them. A hot breeze bent the knee-high grass in undulating waves, filling the air with its clean summer scent. Grasshoppers sprang up in their path, whirring off in every direction like spring-loaded missiles. Deering waited until he and Tessa were halfway across the field before he found his voice again. "So, tell me more about the ranch," he said.

  Tessa plucked a stem of gramma grass and began to strip the seed head. "I have two sections, bordered on one side by Pony Creek and on the other by the Clear Fork Reservation."

  Deering's face brightened. "You mean the Indian Reservation comes right up to your property line?"

  She sighed. "I know what you're thinking, but there's no danger. The Indians cross over to hunt sometimes, but they never bother us."

  "Why, that's ideal," Deering murmured. "And do you know some of these Indians personally?"

  Indians again! Did the man ever think of anything else Will considered tripping him or distracting him in some other way. He hadn't brought the man all the way out here to talk about Indians!

  "I know some," Tessa said. "And others who aren't on the reservations."

  "I thought all Indians were required to live here or on the Brazos reservation further north."

  She tossed aside the now-shredded grass stem. "Technically, yes. But realistically, as long as they leave the white settlers alone, they're allowed to come and go as they please. Most of the smaller tribes do keep to reservation land."

  Will yawned. He hadn't enjoyed politics in life -- now that he was dead all that talk of public policy held even less interest. He fetched a pebble from the ground and launched it at Deering's back, striking him right between the shoulder blades.

  "Ouch!” Deering straightened, wincing.

  "What is it?" Tessa looked concerned.

  "Must have been. . . a bee or something.” The preacher felt gingerly at his back.

  "Turn around and let me see.” Tessa smoothed her hand over the spot Deering indicated between his shoulder blades. "I don't feel anything. Lift your shirt."

  Deering blanched. "I really don't think--"

  "If the stinger is still in there we'll need to get it out," Tessa said. "Now come on. Let me take a look."

  Ah, this was more like it, Will thought. Get that preacher suit off of him and maybe Deering would begin to think like a man, and see Tessa as more than just a fount of information about Indians.

  After another moment's hesitation, Deering unbuttoned his collar and shirt. Tessa helped him pull his shirttails from his trousers and lifted up the shirt and undershirt. The preacher's skin was very pale, but firm and well-muscled. Here was a man who had lifted more than books and pounded more than pulpits in his day.

  Tessa frowned at the small red mark in the middle of Deering's back and brushed her hand over it lightly. "I don't think it's a bee sting," she said. "It looks as if it will be all right."

  "Now turn around and face her," Will whispered, his ghostly lips right next to Deering's ear. "Doesn't she look as if she'd like to be kissed?” If he had to coach the preacher every step of the way, then by golly
he would.

  Deering looked alarmed. His face blanched, then reddened, but at least he did turn and face Tessa. Suddenly, they were standing nose to nose. Will smiled to himself. All right. Now he could let nature take its course.

  He was so intent on choreographing matters with Tessa and Deering that he didn't hear the horse approaching until it was too late. Micah came galloping toward them on the roan mare like a brave on the warpath.

 
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