Authors: Stef Ann Holm
“I wasn't staring at youâ”
She cut him off. “Your eyes were right here.” She let her fingers slip away from his arm, and without pondering the repercussions of her action, she laid a palm to the center of her cleavage.
He didn't give her the satisfaction of saying she was right. Instead, he put the blame elsewhere. “I was there checking up on Rio.”
“What does Rio have to do with your staring at me in my underwear?”
“Plenty. He was staring first.”
All she heard was his late admission. “So, you
looking at me in my unmentionables.”
His eyes smoldered. “Dammit, yes, I was.” He rolled off her then, and sat up. “What do you expect? I'm a man, and you're a woman.”
Well, she'd finally gotten that matter cleared up. He did think of her as a woman. A woman named Jo.
Josephine pushed herself to sitting as well, absently flipping a tangled mess of hair over her shoulder. As she did so, the brunt of what J.D. had said hit her with a gale force, and she gasped, “Why was Rio watching me?”
“I reckon he liked the view.”
Josephine wondered if J.D. had liked the view, too, but she'd rather die before she asked him. It was bad enough that she'd have to contend with facing the wrangler again knowing what she did. And him
knowing what he did about her while she wore next to nothing.
“We need to get started back,” J.D. said, and rose to his feet. For the first time, she noticed he was in his stockings.
“Where are your boots?” she asked, attempting to stand herself and not getting very far. Her legs felt like the mush she'd cooked for this morning's breakfast.
“Some mile or so back where I left them when I jumped in after you,” he replied, extending a hand to her.
Reluctantly, she took his offering, and he pulled her upward. Her balance wasn't what it normally was, and she nearly smacked into his chest. But she put her hand out to keep a respectable distance between them, then immediately brought her arm to her side. “How are we supposed to get back?”
The flicker of amused light in his eyes said he thought she was joking. “Walk.”
She gazed at her bare feet and groaned.
They hadn't gotten more than a few yards when J.D. cursed, reached down, and peeled his socks off. Tossing the sodden pair of woolens at her, he barked, “Put these on, and quit saying âouch.'â”
She didn't like his menacing tone. She couldn't help it if it came natural for her to voice her discomfort every time a pine needle jabbed the tender arch of her foot or a sharp pebble caught between her toes.
Without a word, she squished the too-large stockings over her feet, and they set out again. This time, she bit her tongue before she'd utter a single whimper. But her feet still hurt even with the socks on, and her legs were chafed from the ride on Peaches. And her derriere felt as if she'd been swatted with one of her frying pans.
J.D. walked fast, and Josephine did her best to keep up with him. Her gaze kept falling on wet and dirty fabric that molded next to his behind. He had a build
that demanded her attention. Her infatuation with his muscular physique made her even more upsetâat herself, but she took it out on him.
As she hobbled along, she mouthed words to his back. Mostly, she called him childish names. He could bring out the worst in her, and she shocked herself by the way he made her emotions run high. Usually, she was quite tepid in that department, having restraint. Or, at least, tamping down what she was feeling so nobody would know.
Out here in the wide open, it was as if she'd been given permission to express herself. Even though she didn't say the words out loud, she felt better by the time they reached the spot where his boots were strewn in the grass. He paused for a minute to slip them onâminus his socksâand by the time they came to the bend where she'd left her valise, she'd run out of rambling sentences to mouth at him.
It was a good thing they got to the pool when they did. Josephine couldn't walk another inch. She dropped to her knees on the cushioned ground and held on to a moan as pain shot through her every joint. She was done for. This was it. J.D. would have to find another cook to do his bidding this evening, because she wasn't going to make it to the chuck wagon tonight.
J.D. collected herâ
âclean clothes and stuffed one pair of pants and a shirt into her valise along with the skirt that had spilled out. She'd intended to try it on now that she'd taken in the lacings of her corset. But she hadn't had the opportunity to see if the garment would fit.
His tanned hand fell on the whale-boned item with its fancy embroidery, ribbons, cording, and hooks. She had spread it open to dry, and the corset was flimsy yet stiff in his grasp. He seemed to linger over it longer than necessary before shoving it into the case and flipping the lid closed with the toe of his boot.
Reaching down, he snagged the leftover shirt, trousers, stockings, and her pair of run-down boots.
“Put these on, and let's go.” He tossed them at her lap.
She wanted to yell at him, “You've got to be kidding!” But she held her tongue.
He wanted a woman with some backbone. If she didn't go along, he might strand her there. Then she'd have to camp out alone. She'd heard the baying of the wolves from her bed. They'd come out when the moon was fullÂ .Â .Â . and scavenge for food.
Josephine blew wayward curls from her vision and began to dress. Each move she made reverberated through her body until she truly was on the verge of crying.
At last she was dressed except for her boots, which she just couldn't put on. She held them in her grasp and went after J.D., who'd gone on seconds before her.
The hour had to have been approaching three. The cowboys must have finished up in the river a while ago. Those not on the cattle guard were sprawled on blankets playing cards by a low-burning campfire. She didn't look for Rio. She didn't want to see him.
When she approached the wagon, she had the misfortune of having Boots meet her. He gave her a keen once-over with those hawkish eyes of his, then he had the audacity to say loud enough for the boys to hear, “Y'all've got an imprint of J.D.'s long john button on your cheek.”
Then he laughed, the sound echoing around them and making her painfully uncomfortableâas if he knew precisely what had been going on between her and J.D.
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“In Texas, them bastards ride two or three horses,” Boots orated with zeal, “eat what's in the wagon when they're on the trail, and work for twenty-five dollars a
month. Then they come up Wyoming's way looking for a job, and they expect to have ten horses at their disposal and eat pie three times a day. All for thirty-five dollars a month.”
“That's right,” Orley seconded. “We work twenty-six hours a day.”
“You damn bonehead, don't y'all know there's only twenty-four hours in a day?”
“Yup,” Orley said with a dimpled grin, “but we stand guard two hours every night.”
Boots spat onto the ground. “Good gawd. There's no talking to y'all.”
They had all settled onto their bedrolls around the campfire after their cold swim. Supper had been cleared away, and evening was being spent cleaning guns, oiling saddles, playing cards, and telling stories.
Leaning into the bow of his saddle, his hatâsomewhat reshaped, but still tired lookingâslung over the horn, J.D. gazed into the starlit sky. Around him, the conversation droned and familiar noises abounded. There was talk about tomorrow's ride, a call was made for a full house in the card game, and the rub of an oiled cloth next to leather made a rhythmic squeak.
Earlier, Josephine had staved off playing the violin, claiming she wasn't up to it. Like the others, J.D. had been disappointed.
Sitting up, he stretched his legs. Josephine sat on the wagon seat mending holes in the socks he'd given her to wear from the river back to camp.
J.D. rifled through his gear, came up with a pair of pants, then stood and made his way toward her.
He put his hand on the seat. “You think you could sew these for me?”
Her chin lifted. “When I'm done with these.”
“Mind if I wait?”
“No,” she replied softly.
He took it as an okay for him to climb up next to her. He had to slide the lamp a little out of the way,
then he sat down. He noticed that she was repairing the sock so that he could hardly tell where there'd been a hole. “How are you feeling?”
Surprise lit her face, as if she hadn't thought he'd ask. “I'm all right.”
“I suppose Boots told you we've got liniment for what ails you.”
“He told me.”
J.D. cracked a half-smile. “I take it you aren't going to use any.”
“I'd rather not smell like that greasy tin.”
“So you went as far as lifting the lid, huh?”
He caught a profile of her frown. “Yes.”
A moth bumped into the lantern glass. J.D. swatted it as he leaned his elbows on his knees. “Who taught you how to sew like this?”
She didn't miss a stitch. “My mother.”
“I imagine you miss her.”
“She's been gone for nearly six years.” Her voice grew distant. “And, yes, I still miss her.”
Her hand stilled. “He died less than a year ago.”
“And you've been alone since?”
Josephine gazed at him, and he saw reservation in her eyes. “I've been lonely.” Then she picked up the scissors and cut the thread.
He knew loneliness, too. Though he was surrounded by the boys most of the time, the nights were his. The winters were the hardest when he was cooped up inside with Boots. He'd walk through the quiet house and long to hear a woman's voice. He'd wonder what it would be like to sit by the stove while it was snowing and share a cup of hot coffee together. Or to lie side-by-side in the bed and read. Then snuggle beneath the covers and touchÂ .Â .Â .
For a long while, J.D. had held these thoughts at bay. But Josephine was a constant reminder of femininity. Her voice, her softness, her curling hair. When she was near, he felt something was lacking in his life.
Her hand reached out to him, and, like a fool, he'd hoped she wanted to take his hand in hers. Instead, she said, “I can sew your pants now.”
Grudgingly, he handed them over to her as Rio came in from checking on the remuda. The wrangler walked right on past without so much as a tip of his hat.
Earlier, J.D. had watched Rio and Josephine doing the dishes. As far as J.D. could tell, she and the wrangler hadn't said much between them during the cleanup. He'd noted she stood away from him as much as she could given they had to work side-by-side. And she hadn't met his eyes when he looked at her.
Knowing of no cowboy code that said a hand couldn't share a bath with the cook if he wanted to, J.D. was undecided about how to handle what had happened at the river. The best way would be to let it go. But then again, if Josephine was interested in Rio, maybe he ought to know.
“What do you think of Rio?” he came right out and asked.
She knotted the end of her thread and shrugged. “What do you mean, what do I think of him?”
“Are you sweet on him?”
She nudged him in the side with her elbow when she adjusted the pants in her lap; he wasn't altogether sure it was an accident. “I don't have any kind of infatuation with him. I'm certain I'm years older than he is.”
“How old are you?”
“Were we sitting in a parlor, I wouldn't tell you.”
“Good thing we're not.”
She sighed and locked her gaze onto his. “I'm twenty-five.”
“How come you're not married?”
aren't?” she returned so quickly he almost felt the blow.
His statement was simple. “I've never been in love.”
“Then you have good reason.”
J.D. stared at his boot tips. “Going by how Boots and Eugenia ended up, I probably will be a bastard of a husband.”
She pricked the back of his hand with the needle. “Jesus!” he complained. “What'd you do that for?”
“Because sometimes you make me very angry and I forget myself.” Her cheeks were hot with color. “You're nothing like your father. Can't you see that? Quit trying to blame Boots for everything. He has his flaws but also his good points. You can take after him or not. It's your choice. You're responsible for the way you live your life.”
Dumbfounded, he returned, “Where the hell is this coming from?”
“Something that I have and you apparently don't: experience. I had a chance to be my father's daughter, but I did nothing because I was afraid he'd reject me. Well, now it's too late. You still have time. Do something. If you don't like who you are, make changes.” With that, she threw the wad of denim at him and said, “Finish your own pants.” Then she climbed over the seat back and disappeared through the flaps of canvas.