Authors: Stef Ann Holm
She gasped, then rolled onto her back and jerked the sheet beneath her chin. “What are you doing here? It's the middle of the night.”
“It's past three-thirty. You should have been up a half hour ago.”
“You're crazy.” Her eyes were wide. “Get out, orÂ .Â .Â . or I shall scream.”
“I'm getting out. So are you.” Turning, he looked for her clothes. He found them in a wrinkled pile on the floor. Grabbing hold of a fistful of fabric, he tossed the skirt and blouse onto the bed. “Get dressed. You've got a kitchen to clean up.”
Even in the dim light, he saw the dejection shimmering in her eyes. “I was going to. When the sun came up.”
“Sun'll be up just after you're done.” The corn liquor bottle was within reach, and he grabbed it before she got any more brilliant ideas. “Get dressed.”
She sat upright, her hair falling over her shoulders. Her gaze fell on the pile of clothing strewn at the foot of the bed, but she didn't say anything about the poor condition they were in. Even he could see the splotches of red over everything.
“Give me a moment,” was all she said.
J.D. walked away from her then. Beneath his hardened exterior lay a spark of respect for her. He'd thought for sure she'd feel sorry for herself and tell him she wasn't able to clean up because she was too tired.
Josephine Whittaker was turning out to be a contradiction to his predisposed opinion of her.
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Josephine was fully awake now. Her fingers fumbled with the buttons of her blouse. She had the slightest fringes of a headache. Three short sips of Boots McCall's fiery liquor had been all she'd been able to swallow. She'd never been a drinker. Just a social glass of sherry shared with friends, and perhaps
a small splash every so often in a moment of emergency. Hugh had done enough indulging for the both of them, so she had never abused liquor.
Now, looking back on the evening, she was ashamed she had resorted to the spirits. She'd taken the coward's way out. Josephine Whittaker had vowed no longer to be spineless the moment she'd boarded the train in Manhattan. She should have attacked the mess with vigor and been done with it before going to bed. But Boots had deflated her to jelly with his jests at her expense.
In the clarity of daylightâwell, almost daylightâshe was angry. Mostly at herself, a lingering bit at Boots. She'd clean the kitchen. And she'd do a good job, too.
By the time she was as presentable as she could get, the aroma of coffee came from the kitchen. Its pungent scent reminded her that she hadn't eaten the night before. Nor had she eaten much at all since leaving New York. She was used to a fine selection of rich foods and sauces. All she'd been offered thus far on the train and at the Bar Grub restaurant were greasy portions of unidentified platters heavy with meat and thick gravies. If she didn't eat something agreeable in flavor soon, she was going to wither away to nothing. Already the clasp on her skirt seemed to have loosened.
Josephine took a deep, fortifying breath, then left her room feeling as if she could do anything.
J.D. had his broad back to her when she entered the kitchen. He stood at the dry sink, viewing angles of his chin in a mirror hanging by a string from a cupboard knob. A basin of water was before him, and he held a straight razor. He scraped the blade across his neck in an upward motion, then swished off the soap in the water.
She couldn't recall ever seeing Hugh shave himself. His valet had always groomed and dressed him. Impeccably so.
J.D. was very efficient with his movements. Watching him, she felt like an intruder, but she couldn't turn away. An unwelcome spark of excitement at the prospect of seeing what he would look like clean-shaven made her continue to stare. Her senses seemed to flicker into definable emotions. Awareness was at the forefront. It struck a vibrant chord in her; she had never been so aware of a man since she'd met Hugh at a party and he'd charmed nearly every dance from her.
J.D. spied her in the mirror, moving his head a fraction to the left to see her fully. An instant of glaring self-consciousness surfaced within her. Her appearance was beyond dreadful with all the speckles of red staining the fabric of her suit. A hot flush worked its way across her skin.
He picked up a towel from the counter and ran the nap across his jaw and neck, wiping away the lingering traces of white lather. A kettle of water began to sputter and boil on the rear stove plate. Folding the towel in two, he used it to remove the pot by the handle.
“I got you a bucket half full of cold water.” He motioned to the wooden receptacle next to the back door. “The lye soap is under the sink. You add some of this hot water to the bucket. Use a brush and a rag, and you'll be able to clean up.”
His brows slanted into a frown. “Don't call me that. If you have a mind to call me anything, I answer to J.D. or boss.”
The tiny words had slipped out naturally. All her life she'd heard the staff at the Madison Square home address her father as “sir.”
“All right,” she conceded.
J.D. flung the damp towel over his shoulder and modified the oven damper without any uncertainty. “I'll fix breakfast this morning. Hell, I guess we'll have to let Boots wrangle up dinner since we'll be stocking
the wagon. But you're in charge of supper. Steaks. Fried. Not rare, but not burned. You got that?”
“Yes, er, boss.”
He stole a sideways look at her before taking the basin out the back door and tossing the dirty water on the ground. With an easy stride, he returned and went about getting the flour from the larder. He'd already wiped off the counter so that he would have a clean work space.
Josephine propelled herself into motion. She took up the bucket where a brush and rag floated on the surface, and then she retrieved the soap. The kettle at the stove was full and heavy, and she struggled to lift it. Without a word, J.D. brushed her hand aside and poured some of the steaming water into the bucket. She stood back, observing him, watching the play of muscles stretch the shirt across his back as he was bent over. She stared at the cuts and scars on his hands, thinking he didn't live an easy life.
The scent of soap on his skin was noticeably pleasant. In Sienna, she'd thought him remotely handsomeâin a rugged way. But without the short beard hiding half of his features, he was very attractive. His mouth was fuller than she had guessed. There was a slight cleft in his chin, and if she looked closely, she saw faint dimples at the corners of his mouth. She'd always equated dimples with someone who laughed quite a bit. But J.D. was far too serious. Too brooding.
Crouching down, Josephine dunked the rag in the warm water. Her gaze fell on J.D.'s hair. She'd never known a man who kept his hair so long. She would have thought she'd be put off by its unruly length that went against her social standard of etiquette. But she wasn't. She was rather intrigued by the dark hair that fell softly around his collar. Did it feel as silky as it looked?
J.D. caught her staring at him. She hadn't been
paying attention to where she was squeezing the water, and it sloshed onto the floor. He couldn't have missed her obvious examinationâand approvalâbefore returning to what he'd been doing.
Chiding herself, she squared her shoulders and vowed to keep her eyes on her work. She dragged the stool from the corner and strategically placed it in the center of the room so that she could wash the ceiling first.
The time passed quickly, and soon the night's darkness broke as a misty fog blurred the curve of yellow at the horizon. Josephine paused to stare out the window. She'd never seen a western sunrise before. The colors were warm, running from burnt orange to red. At least the Beadle's hadn't lied about that.
She was only three-quarters of the way finished with the kitchen when J.D. brought a pan of biscuits out of the oven. The heavenly scent of browned dough filled the room. He removed a frying pan of something smelling similar to bacon from the stove plate and set it on the sideboard.
“When you've got a meal done,” he said, “you walk around to the front porch and ring the triangle. That'll bring the boys in.”
Josephine smiled inside. She knew what a triangle was, having read about a character named Vinegar Jim who'd banged a wand inside one.
“I can do that,” she replied confidently, then lifted her gaze.
She'd been so set on getting her job done, she hadn't paid J.D. too much mind. Until now. He stood with his legs braced apart, sleeves rolled up. Around his lean waist, a white towel had been tied by thin strings to make an apron of sorts. She'd never envisioned a cowboy as a cook, but J.D. looked like he belonged in a kitchen with his no-nonsense stance and command of the pots and pans.
Tossing the towel he was holding onto the counter, he said, “I'll get the grub on the table while you finish up in here.” J.D. grabbed the platter of biscuits in one hand and the frying pan in the other. On his way out, he called over his shoulder, “Take a load off and eat something.” He inclined his chin to the counter, then departed through the door.
She went to see what he'd been indicating. It was a napkin-covered plate. Slowly, she lifted a corner of the napkin. Arranged on the plate were two fluffy biscuits and some kind of crispy meat. What drew her attention was the canned peach dead center, making the arrangement symmetrical. Mismatched silverware was laid crosswise at the head of the plate, knife blade pointing out.
Josephine looked up as J.D. returned to the kitchen to get the coffeepot. He was in and out in seconds without making eye contact with her. A host of masculine voices drifted from the dining room as he exited. Her gaze fell on the plate once more.
She couldn't explain why, but she thought J.D.'s breakfast offering was the most thoughtful thing any man had ever done for her.
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Rio Cibolo and One-Eyed Hazel rolled the chuck wagon from the shadowy barn out into the blaring sunlight. J.D. examined its wooden outsides with a critical eye. The sight was discouraging. One of the wheels was missing a spoke. At least Hazel could make a replacement. All the hubs squeaked; they needed a good cleaning and greasing.
“It don't seem right getting the wagon out without Luis telling us what to do,” Hazel said softly.
One-Eyed Hazel was older than the hills, but he was just as enduring as the land itself. His life was etched on his grizzled face. Years of sun and wind, long winter nights, and hot summer days made a network of lines at the corners of his eyes and thin mouth.
Most of his front teeth were missing, and those that were left were yellowâlike the tobacco stains on his fingers. A black patch covered his right eye. A colt had kicked him in the side of his head some nine years back when he'd been breaking horses at the Bar W. The accident had left him blind in that eye.
“Boss'll tell us what to do,” Rio stated, pulling a tiny sack of Durham out of his breast pocket. He took a pinch of the cowboy candy, then closed the pouch by pulling on the drawstring with his teeth. “Or is the cookie going to scrub it down and give me 'n' Hazel the orders?”
“She'll be helping us,” J.D. replied, laying his hand along one of the wagon's sideboards where the outfit's brand had been burned in the wood.
“Where is she, then?” Rio asked around the lump in his cheek, the tone in his voice anxious.
“She'll be along.”
J.D. had left a set of his work clothes on Josephine's bed while she washed the breakfast dishes. The lace-up knit jersey would give her some warmth, and a pair of his blue denim britches would give her the freedom needed to organize the wagon's bed. It had been her lack of complaining about cleaning the kitchen and her holding her head high in a skirt and blouse his mother would have rather burned than wear that had sent him searching through his dresser drawers. He'd thought for sure she'd throw in the towel and say she couldn't get the job done. But she hadn't. The walls were spotless. So were the floor and ceiling.
Josephine appeared through the front door. She'd rolled up the bottoms to the pants and turned up the sleeve cuffs once or twice. The shirt's hem hung out of the britches, giving her the shape of a straight board. There was no body definition to her. No outline of breasts, waist, or hips. Which was just as well with the boys dallying around.
She stepped off the porch, her eyes narrowing to
adjust to the bright sun. She wore her fancy hatâthe only thing left of the Miss Forget-Me-Not attire. The wide blue ribbon was tied at an angle beneath her chin, and the brim was all but worthless. He lowered his gaze to her feet. She wore her fine dress shoes.
As she approached, he caught a glimpse of her hands. They were red and chapped. He thought of those soft-looking ivory fingers lying on her pillow this morning when he'd awakened her. A pang of guilt racked him, but he willed it away. There was nothing he could do. He was paying her to do a job that required physical effort and a lot of cleaning.
“Morning, ma'am,” Rio said in a sugary voice, tipping the brim of his hat. Then he turned his head away and spat watery juice between his lips.
Rio was the only hand favoring Josephine Whittaker. Hell, Rio favored any woman, so that didn't count. The fact of the matter was, besides Peavy and Boots, nobody had met her yet. The no-show of the steaks J.D. had promised she'd deliver last night was reflected in the morale of the boys this morning. A cattle outfit was only as good as its cook, and for the past three weeks the McCall outfit had been suffering. The cowboys, as loyal as they may be, wouldn't keep on working to the bone for creamed corn on toast.
“Good morning,” Josephine replied evenly as she drew up to the wagon. She eyed Hazel with trepidation.
“This here is Rio,” J.D. said without preamble, “and that's Hazel. Hazel, this is the new cook, Miss Josephine Whittaker.”
Hazel instantly doffed his hat and held onto it in front of him, fidgeting with the brim. “Ma'am.” Despite being a big, slack-jawed fellow with a patch over his eye, Hazel had a gentle voice that put people at ease.