Authors: Mary Wine
Tags: #Erotica, #Fiction, #Romance, #Western, #Historical
“Not too bad an idea, son.”
Joseph grinned because his pa only called him son when he was proud of him. “Besides, I figure if we got’s us a baby on the way, Brianna will be in a fine hurry to marry me before her belly gets too big.”
His pa snickered. “Well now, it can get mighty cold up here in the winter. Seems like you’d better plan on keeping that pretty little girl warm.”
Joseph snatched up his whiskey bottle and offered it to his pa. The older man took a swig before passing it back. Joseph rubbed his cock again and grinned as he considered just how to place his plan into action. With his pa on his side, his brothers wouldn’t be no trouble. In fact, they’d help out, considering there was a woman’s cooking to be gained.
He didn’t doubt he’d have Brianna stoking the dirty black stove in front of him. She’d bend to his command just like a prairie pony did when you starved it long enough. He licked his lower lip as he considered what she might do when her belly ached bad enough for food. Some of them whores did some mighty fine things with a man’s cock. Seeing as how Brianna had all the same parts as those women, he was looking forward to having her at his mercy. Planting a baby in her belly wasn’t going to be half the fun, not hardly.
Brianna awoke to discover that winter wasn’t wasting any time in arriving. There was ice on the river this morning. Small clumps of snow lay on the bank and they didn’t completely melt away by afternoon. Ice flowed down the river, heralding the onslaught of the cold weather.
Brianna ran a longing hand over a new length of flannel fabric waiting near her sewing machine. Making a winter dress sounded wonderful. She stroked the black cast-iron machine with a loving finger, taking a moment to enjoy the fact that she didn’t have to sew by hand anymore. Powered by a foot treadle, the sewing machine practically flew through stitching fabric together. Every stitch was perfect too. Just watching it made her giddy like a child with a new toy. Only it was a woman’s toy. Her father had bought the machine last season and she still had trouble believing she owned such a modern convenience. It sure would save money, if she could make her own clothing instead of buying garments at the mercantile.
More money might even be earned if she made men’s shirts and sold them in town. Home goods went for a good sum in Silver Peak due to the lack of women. Miners wore out their shirts and without a wife they were reduced to buying new ones from women who had learned how to make money with housewifery skill. More than one westerner found himself being kept by his wife, when his dreams of striking gold didn’t materialize. Savvy women had discovered that their skills in the home were worth cash to the hordes of miners. Once her daddy returned, she might just take up tailoring and strike a bargain with the mercantile in town.
With two incomes, the land bill wouldn’t be a problem ever again. A bright smile covered her face as she gave the machine a loving pat. Yes sir, she and her father were going to make it in the West without finding any gold. They would just provide the services that the miners and farmers needed. Back east, huge factories kept a single family from prospering. That was why her father had moved them west. Opportunity was here for those bold enough to pit their fortunes against the harshness of getting started.
The creaking of a wagon interrupted her ideas. She went to the door to peek out of the view hole now that her window was boarded closed.
A smile moved her lips up as the widow Lambert climbed down from her buckboard. Bonnie Lambert was as sweet as a summer strawberry. Pushing the bar up, Brianna pulled the door open and stepped into the yard to greet her guest. Bonnie wouldn’t have any money to offer, but she always waited until the end of the season before attempting to barter for her grinding. That sort of consideration made her a good friend. The widow had lost her husband to fever after an accident, but her three young sons still managed to bring in enough of a crop to feed the family. Brianna would bet the widow had been sending her youngest son over the hill to look at the river every morning this week to see if the ice was getting thicker. Judging the perfect time to make her appearance.
“Good afternoon, Bonnie. Is that Tomas? How did he get so tall?”
Brianna worked into dusk on the Lambert grain. It was actually less expensive to burn kerosene in her lamps for work light than coal in her stove to heat the cabin. The labor of working the mill kept her warm, so she lit the lamp. It was a race against winter, because her mill used water to power it. Once the river iced over three feet from the banks, there would be no more grinding until spring. She couldn’t risk breaking the waterwheel that powered the grinding stone.
That was a shame, too. She had enough work to grind all winter, but you couldn’t hold back ice. She had begun turning farmers away weeks ago. They would bring their grain back once spring arrived, because she couldn’t be responsible for their crops during the winter. Every order she took now would be on a day-to-day basis. She had no way to judge just when the cold would force her to stop. It was something she would have to decide each morning. Staying up past sunset was the only way to ensure she finished the order. The early morning hours might bring ice that ended her grinding. Besides, the Lambert family only needed their personal flour and cornmeal ground. Bonnie needed to feed her family. Brianna grinned as she stretched out her back. It was worth the ache in her spine. Bonnie had milk cows and she had brought sweet butter to trade. Placed in the back bedroom, it would freeze and keep all the way into spring once Brianna spooned it into thick crocks. The idea of hot biscuits with butter kept her company as she worked into the evening.
She only walked up to her cabin to light another lamp so that she wouldn’t have to stumble around in a pitch-black room. Now that the window was nailed shut, the front room was dim even during daylight. Checking the lamp, she turned the wick down as far as possible and made sure the lamp was only a third full of oil. She sat the glass lamp in her large cast-iron cooking pot as a precaution against fire. If it turned over, the fire would be contained in the deep iron pot.
Rubbing her arms, she left the cabin and hurried back to the mill house. A single lamp was lit near the grinding stone and it welcomed her with its yellow glow. Pushing the door closed against the night chill, she clasped the handle that would lower the grinding stone onto the grain waiting to be crushed by its weight. She was going to splurge and make herself an over jacket with that sewing machine. A nice, thick wool one that she could button over her bodice and stays to keep her warm. With the speed of the sewing machine, she’d have the time to make one instead of struggling to keep up with replacing the garments that had worn out past spring and summer.
Brianna froze as the words floated in the open mill house window. She hadn’t dared nail this window shut. The air would become a thick, swirling mass of chafe and grain partials if she didn’t let the wind in. Turning the wick down on her lamp, she moved across the floor to peer into the darkness that surrounded her cabin. A horrified gasp left her lips as she watched the dark shapes of men in the night. There was a smack and the splintering sound of a wall being torn apart on her cabin. Backing up, she looked around the mill house, cursing her lack of foresight in leaving her father’s rifle up in the cabin. All of her pride shattered as she recognized the pure reality of how helpless she was in the face of lawless men. She had no idea who was breaking into her home or what they wanted, but might made right as darkness masked their deeds. The sound of more wood being splintered sent her franticly searching for any means of protection.
The horses belonging to her invaders were still in the main drive. One false move and they’d tell their masters that she was scurrying away towards town. The mill house door opened onto that drive and might spook the team if she tried to escape the mill. Chewing on her lip, she considered the only other way out. A trapdoor was set into the floor. It was there for cleaning. You just swept everything out the hatch. Many times she’d washed the plank floor down with buckets of water because she could push the water right out of the room through the trapdoor.
But there was nothing on the banks of the river to hide behind. Leaving the mill house would get her out of sight of her midnight bandits, but it wouldn’t be much of a trade-off. The only escape the hatch offered her was a freezing cold river that just might kill her faster than the men breaking into her home. “The bitch ain’t here. Try the mill.”
Freezing water or not, she wasn’t waiting for them to check the mill house.
Slipping through the open trapdoor, Brianna pressed the hatch back into place once she was crouched beneath the mill. The mud was frozen and her boots slipped on the ice. Heavy boots came down the drive as she turned and slid across the ice on the banks of the river. Her body went right into the flowing center of the water.
She gasped as she plunged into the near-freezing liquid. Needles pricked up and down her limbs as the current carried her downstream. Moving her arms, she tried to swim faster towards town. Sure, people claimed that death was preferable to dishonor, but she wanted to live. Not end up a victim of the icy current. Keeping her head above the water became harder as her body lost more heat. She could feel the ice on her lips as she gasped for breath and strained to keep her neck up out of the swirling, freezing tempest. The river was trying to pull her into its center. She fought to get back to the slowermoving water along the banks, but ice was thick there and her fingers slipped off every time she tried to grip it.
Gasping for another breath, she watched the hazy glow of light penetrate the cold trying to numb her brain. The image danced in a crazy motion, with rays shooting out like a star. Forcing her body to strain towards it took every last shred of will that she had. A harsh cry left her lips as she pushed forward, grasping at that single promise of life.
Pain exploded along her shoulder as she smacked into one of the support beams that made up the dock. All the force of the current went into her, racking her with pain, but she clamped her arms around the rough wood refusing to let loose of the only possibility of escape from the river. Hard shivers shook her as she tried to move her hand farther up the beam to begin climbing out of the river. Her limbs shook violently, but refused to do as her brain commanded. Gritting her teeth, she grunted and forced her hands to claw at the slick wood, welcoming the pain from countless splinters because it meant she was still alive. A dark haze beckoned to her from the water rushing past. It pulled at her dress, clutching at her petticoat, attempting to drag her back into the current. Almost a promise of release from the pain, but she refused to sink into its welcoming folds.
Because life hurt.
She knew it. Faced it each and every day, and she wanted to confront it again. Not slip back into the river and the cold, unfeeling embrace of death. Digging her fingers into the wood, she cried as it ripped her skin again, but she pulled her shoulders out of the water in spite of the pain.
Her entire body was hauled out of the water in one swift moment. She flopped onto the dock as her legs collapsed. She contorted in a violent attack of shivering unable to do anything but convulse on the rough planks. Her dress and petticoat were soaked. The weight of the wet fabric felt too much to lift as her heart struggled to move her cold blood. Each breath took an amazing amount of strength to draw into her lungs, every thump of her heart sounded like a gavel landing. Her throat wouldn’t let a single word out as she kicked against her wet clothing in a vain attempt to stand. But she wasn’t even able to roll onto her hands and knees.
“Holy hell.” A hard hand gripped her head and turned her face up to Sloan’s. “Look at me.” His voice was as hard as his grip. Demand edged the tone as he let her chin go and slipped his hand under the tangled mess of her hair to press flush against her neck. She jolted as the sting cut through the chill moving along her veins. His flesh was as hot as a poker pulled from the fire, sending another rush of agony down her back.
“Don’t you dare close your eyes, Brianna.”
Her lips wouldn’t cooperate enough for her to answer. She couldn’t get them to form any words. All that escaped her throat was a jumble of sounds that betrayed how much she hurt. Every patch of flesh was ablaze with pain that slashed deep into her joints. He grasped her wrist and bent his knees. With another yank, Sloan flung her over his shoulder. He straightened up without a second of hesitation and moved across the dock at a brisk pace, his boots making sound because of his hurry. She should have been horrified to have her fanny facing up, but it felt like ice was moving through her and it hurt too much for her to worry about anything else. She tried to grasp the black fabric of his duster, to steady her head, but her hands refused to close into a grip.
A door opened and Sloan kicked it shut behind them. The air in the room burned her cheeks, it felt so warm. She gasped as Sloan let her down. “Try and stand, honey. I’ve got to get your dress off.”
“B-b-but—” Her teeth knocked against one another as Sloan placed his rifle against the wall. He took hold of her shoulders and steadied her.
“It’s full of ice.” He stroked a hand over her head and through her hair. Ice hit the floor with a rattle that startled her. She looked down in confusion right before she hissed as Sloan’s fingers touched her neck.
“No, honey, you’re cold. The kind of cold that kills.” His voice was hard but not angry. He grabbed the top of her dress and opened the first few buttons. Disbelief spread through her as she tried to wiggle away from his touch.
“Your face is blue.” He caught her shoulders and held her steady as he locked gazes with her. “A dip in an icy river can stop a man’s heart. Your dress needs to come off. Now.”
He finished opening the front of her dress as she tried to think. Caught between the horror of dying and the idea of being undressed in front of him, her mind was completely overwhelmed. He slid her open dress right down her torso and over her hips before she mustered a response. She tried to push his hands aside, but her muscles weren’t obeying her brain’s commands. She still shivered violently, clenching her teeth together to keep them from chattering. Each touch from Sloan’s fingers felt hot enough to sear her skin.
“I’m sorry, honey, but I only know one way to warm you back up.” His voice was thick with determination. “The clothes come off.”
Brianna looked up to stare into his eyes. A second later he grabbed the tie lacing her stays. A hard jerk and she felt the garment begin to slacken. He pulled at the cord until her corset dropped to the floor.
“Oh no…” Her words were whisper soft and full of embarrassment. Her chemise was plastered to her wet skin, leaving very little of her body a mystery. Never once had she ever considered being viewed by a man, even a husband in such a way.
“Body heat is the only way to keep you from dying on me.”
The harsh note in his voice frightened her. It was the same tone he’d used on Joseph while aiming his rifle at the man’s gut. She wiggled once more but he followed her and hooked his fingers into the shoulders of her last garment. He pulled her chemise right over her head. He gripped her hips, and her knickers, along with her petticoat, went down her legs so fast she wasn’t sure when he unbuttoned them. A shower of ice hit the floor, filling the small cabin with a rattling sound. Looking down, she stared at the harsh truth of just how dangerous a situation she was in. Her clothing was frozen. Getting free of it was the only way to warm back up.