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Caress of Fire
By Martha Hix
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 1992 Martha Hix
All rights reserved.
She needed what he could offer.
Twice, she had set out to speak with him. Twice, courage had deserted her as she neared the entrance to the Vereinskirche building, where he stood talking with a trio of men. Twice up and down Main Street, and nothing to show for it.
Backbone, that was what she needed to approach the rancher less than a block away A few steps meaning the difference between drudgery and freedom.
Lisette Keller took a deep breath and walked toward Gil McLoughlin. She prayed nothing would go wrong.
A rotund farmer, one of the few locals on the street this morning, sidled up to her. He scratched his reddened nose and said in German, the language spoken by most of Fredericksburg, Texas's populace, "It's a fine day, is it not? Balmy even for this climate."
Lisette didn't wish to discuss the weather, yet she wouldn't be rude. "It is."
Otto Kapp's expression veered, curious. "What are you doing in town? I thought your brother was planting those peach saplings he imported."
She was supposed to be planting that orchard, not Adolf, and if she returned to the farm, there would be hell to pay. She stole a look at the distant form of Gil McLoughlin. Return to her brother's farm she would not, and the rancher would be the instrument of her escape.
"Fräulein Keller," Otto Kapp said, "there is something I have been intending to discuss. Marriage. I mean to speak with Adolf about you."
She hid a shudder. Several times the widower Kapp had made his intentions clear, but she would rather be dragged naked down this very street than marry him. Her feelings weren't necessarily a result of his lack of physical appeal. She simply didn't like him, and wouldn't spend the rest of her life being his Hausfrau.
Mumbling a nonspecific reply and an auf Wiedersehen, Lisette adjusted her handmade, eagle-feather-trimmed fedora and sidestepped the farmer. A wagon rolled by, blocking her view of her key to freedom. She cut around the vehicle and stepped to the street corner. No more than a quarter block separated her from the dark-haired, lanky McLoughlin.
Recognizing Anna Uhr's voice, Lisette stopped and turned to the one person who knew about her plans. Nonetheless, they nettled her, all these interruptions.
"Are you going to do it?" Anna asked, wide-eyed.
Lisette scanned the surroundings to make certain no one could overhear. Die Biergarten's proprietor strode outside to pour a bucket of slop into a trough for his pigs; Otto Kapp greeted him, the pair disappearing into the saloon. Gil McLoughlin and his companions weren't within hearing range.
Assured of privacy, Lisette finally replied, "Yes."
"Herr McLoughlin will never agree."
"He will. He will."
"He'll think you loose for asking." Anna batted a fly buzzing her nose. "It is not proper, what you're wanting from the Yankee."
"Scotsman," Lisette corrected.
"I doubt he's as in need as you'd like to think."
"He'll let me have my way." Lisette spoke bravely, not feeling half as courageous as her words. "He's a newcomer around here, and from where he hails, they probably don't have as strict a code of propriety."
"I wouldn't count on that. Ladies are ladies in Illinois and Scotland–or wherever he's from. Even if what has been said about him is true ..." Anna moved away from a stray pig that had waddled up to her. "I imagine a proposition such as yours would be frowned on anywhere."
"You have a point," Lisette conceded, "but there's no other way out."
"There might be no need for the unseemly if you'd flirt a bit. He might offer for your hand, then you wouldn't be forced into disgrace." Anna's teeth tugged on one side of her bottom lip. "Is it you don't wish to be wooed by a man with scandal attached to his name?"
"Anna Uhr, bite your tongue."
Though her own disgrace was mostly a secret, Lisette felt a certain kinship with the cattleman she would meet today. According to gossip, he, too, had been hurt by life. Though he wasn't openly shunned by the townfolk, he hadn't been welcomed to the community, and Lisette sympathized with his situation.
Anna, unaware of her friend's past heartbreak, continued her attempt at matchmaking. "He's well fixed–I've heard his Four Aces Ranch is an isle of profit in the sea of our local poverty. And surely you don't think he's homely."
Lisette, flushing, looked in the rancher's direction. She'd never seen him up close, but even from afar, he emitted a virile aura that a woman would have to be cold as a February day not to notice.
More advice came her way. "The Yankee, er, Scotsman will be driving his cattle to Kansas shortly, and if you work fast, you'll have a ring on your finger, and–"
"Marriage isn't what I want from him. It'll take money and lots of it for me to get to Chicago, and he can provide it."
"In all the years I've known you, Lisette Keller, I've never known you for a conniver."
Lisette studied the toes of her worn shoes. As a rule she didn't scheme to achieve her purposes, but why feel guilty? She would give more than she took from Herr McLoughlin, so he had everything to gain and nothing to lose from accepting her deal.
She met Anna's skeptical gaze. "No one will hire me–not for any job, much less at my hatmaking trade–without my brother's permission. And Adolf would never approve. Herr McLoughlin is my last hope."
"Oh, Lisette, I wish there were some way Egon and I could help. We've had such a time, trying to catch up on our taxes and keeping food on the table. But I worry about you."
"I know." Appreciative of her friend's concern, she touched Anna's arm, and her voice softened. "I do need to 'work fast.' Or he'll be gone before I–"
"Fine. Go on." Exasperated now, the married woman warned, "Remember something. If he takes you up on your bargain, you'll still be an unmarried woman once you reach Chicago."
Instead of replying, Lisette fingered her hat, reminding herself of the trade that would finance her freedom ... once she reached the shores of Lake Michigan.
"You are the prettiest woman I've ever seen," Anna went on, and her remark drew a mien of disbelief from Lisette, who had always considered herself rather ordinary.
Anna was saying, "But you're not getting any younger. Twenty-two doesn't make for a prime matrimonial prospect even if so many eligible men hadn't been lost in the war." She paused for emphasis. "Twenty-two or fifteen, you wouldn't be able to count on any man taking you to wife, if your name is sullied. Even the desperate, such as Herr Kapp, would think twice. Men have too much pride to marry unrespectable women."
Lisette swallowed. The Civil War had shattered many lives, including her own. No longer was she young. No longer was she above reproach, if the truth were known. Along the course of reaching her advanced age, she'd erred in judgment and given her trust to the untrustworthy, only to be jilted.
No man would want another's reject, should he discover her shameful secret. No man? Well, if such an understanding man existed, he didn't live in this narrow-minded community.
Since she was penniless, she had to depend on her wits, had to use any resource available to escape her brother and his wife. She wouldn't lose sleep over sacrificing the reputation she had guarded like a miser did a penny, nor would she be swayed by capricious courtship ploys, nor by vague Scottish virility.
Gil McLoughlin was a means to an end. Nothing more, nothing less.
Once more her eyes found the Scotsman.
Oh, no! He made the motions of leaving, was untying his sorrel stallion from the hitching post as his companions disappeared into the Vereinskirche building. Lisette rushed forward, the hem of her best of two dresses dragging through the street's dust. In her agitation, she called to him in German.
Correcting herself, she said in English as he put his foot in the stirrup, "Mister McLoughlin, hold up, please."
His booted foot returned to the ground, and when he turned to her, the first thing she noticed was the startling contrast of his silver-banded blue eyes to his tanned and now-smiling face.
Her study latched on to black eyebrows–straight across his eyes, winged at the temples. "May I have a moment of your time, sir?"
"I reckon I might have a minute to spare, little lady."
Strange, she'd expected him to speak with a Scottish burr, and she found herself taken aback that he'd call her a little lady. At five-eight, small didn't describe her in the least. Be that as it may, she enjoyed the appellation and the Western inflection.
He doffed his Stetson. Forgetting all her vows to keep romance out of her yet-to-be-proposed deal, Lisette had the sudden urge to fluff the loose raven-black waves adhering to his head where the hatband had been.
He pitched his hat atop the saddlehorn. At that same moment, the sorrel–his powerful muscles swelling and ebbing beneath a glistening coat–reared his head, snorted, and tried to pull away from the reins. His master's "Behave, Big Red," murmured in an authoritative yet calming manner, quietened the fitful stallion.
Gil McLoughlin ambled over to the hitching post and wound the reins around it, and Lisette made a few observations. She supposed most men who drove Longhorn cattle all the way to Abilene could use gentle persuasion on a single majestic beast, but she was impressed with this particular man.
His features had character, from the faint lines radiating at the corners of his blue-gray eyes to the determined set of his clefted chin. He was dark and lean, though not skinny by any stretch of the imagination, and he appeared powerful enough to coerce even the most ornery beast into line.
None of which had any bearing whatsoever on her purpose.
And he was gazing expectantly at her.
"Ich bin–I mean, I am Lisette Keller."
Those arresting eyes welded to her lips. "I know."
The meeting's purpose drifted away like smoke fanned by a breeze. Never had she imagined him giving a single thought to her. "How did you know who I am?" she queried, and a grin tugged at her mouth.
"You'd be surprised at the things I know about you."
"Oh? What, for instance?"
He stepped closer. No telling how he would smell a few days into his cattle drive, but at the moment Gil McLoughlin smelled nice, like bay rum and soap all mixed up with sun and man. She ought not to let all this Scottish virility affect her, but to act on her own counsel was like asking the earth to stop turning.
The back of her hand at her waist, she said, "I'm waiting for an answer."
"Standing in the street is no place for explanations." He winked before hitching a thumb in the beer garden's direction. "How about I treat you to a nice cold glass of sarsaparilla?"
"That won't do." She shouldn't be objecting to any offer. There were limits, though. "It wouldn't be proper, my visiting Die Biergarten."
"I'd never take a lady to a saloon." This time he motioned to an area of trees fronting the Gillespie County courthouse. "If you'll do me the honor of having a seat under that big oak, ma'am, I'll fetch us a couple of cool drinks."
How mannerly he seemed, such a gentleman. In light of Gil McLoughlin's knowing some things about her, Lisette wanted to know everything about him. Was it true, she wondered, the gossip about his past?
The rancher ran his fingertips across the swirls of ebony chest hair visible above the opening of his shirt, and Lisette wondered why he didn't keep his shirt buttoned right up to the throat, as other men did. Apparently he didn't adhere to many social strictures, and she found this oddly charming.
"May I interest you in a refreshment, Miss Keller?"
"Danke–I mean, thank you." An urge came over her, totally improper, wholly diverse to her purpose: she wanted to acquaint her own fingers with the feel of his chest. "Uh, um, that would be lovely."
His spur rowels pinged as he crossed the street to enter Die Biergarten. Lisette decided he wore his Levis much too tight–which must be uncomfortable when he rode that horse. She chuckled at her thought. Those britches did look nice on him, what with broad shoulders emphasizing narrow hips and long legs.
Stop it, she chided herself. She needed money, his money; nothing else. And everything was going smoothly.
She hastened to seat herself on a bench on the courthouse lawn. Mockingbirds sang. Lifting her face toward their leafy perch, she smiled again. This was truly a lovely day in spring.
Two glasses in hand, Gil McLoughlin strode toward the comely Lisette Keller. According to Matthias Gruene, his strawboss for the upcoming cattle drive, she was a true lady.
Hence Gil was pleased as a pup unearthing a dried-up old steak bone when she'd approached him. Apparently the young German had gotten word to Lisette: Gil wanted to meet her.
She was as pretty as any sweet little filly he'd ever laid his thirty-year-old eyes on. Big boned and well-proportioned, Lisette Keller was wrapped in the allure of innocence and vulnerability He liked that.
Good gracious, Old Son, look at those cornflower-blue eyes, he thought as she turned those beauties on him.
"Sorry," he said, handing over a foam-flecked glass. "They were out of sarsaparilla. Coffee, too, and–"
"No apology needed, sir," she cut in, her English incredibly melodic, even with the accents of her native language and her occasional lapse into it. A smile brightened her face even before she added, "We Germans prefer beer to root beer any day."
She held the glass between two roughened hands. Gil knew she worked hard. Time and again he had passed by her brother's farm, had seen Lisette in the fields. She was much too lovely for such labors.
"You know," she said, "when I lived in San Antonio, I met a Scotsman or two, but you don't sound like them."
He hitched a booted foot up onto the bench, and her attention went to the crotch of his Levis; quick as a wink, she forced her line of sight upward ... and blushed.
Realizing his vulgarity, Gil put his boot back to earth. He tended to be crude. Spending most of his time with cowpokes and longhorns, he'd gotten out of the habit of polite behavior. Maisie McLoughlin would have given him both sides of her tongue, had she witnessed her grandson treating a lady with anything but the utmost respect.
"Why don't I sound like a Scot?" he said, eager to ship over his breach of decorum. "I left Inverness when I was a boy Grew up in Illinois, then joined the Union Army when the war broke out. I've been in the West since late '65." Lisette listened closely, leaned forward to catch his every word. "Guess I speak like a lot of the men here in Texas, this town excluded." He shrugged. "Doesn't mean I've completely lost my Scot's ways, though."
"What made you come south?"
All this interest had a marked effect on Gil, and a smile broadened his face as he scanned the fair-complected Miss Keller. He admired her hair. It was tucked under a silly-looking bonnet, but Gil knew those locks were long and pale.
She'd asked a question. What was it? Oh, he remembered. "I came south for the want of land. And for the want of money."
"Now you have both."
"Not quite. Land, yes–money, no. Don't get me wrong, I'm not destitute. By money, I mean gold in the bank for the Four Aces."
Why was he being candid? It wasn't in his nature to talk freely about his business, but he decided, with Lisette, he wanted matters out in the open.
"Once my cattle drive is finished," he went on, "my land and all on it will be on solid footing. Everything depends on getting those cows over to the feeder route and up the Chisholm Trail–safely. And I'll do it."
"You're quite a determined man," she observed, her admiration shining. But her next statement caught him off guard: "I understand you're not married, Mister McLoughlin."
Gil jacked up a brow. This was one bold lass. Very bold. He liked that in a lady Liked her manner so much he winked–boldly, to be sure–and answered, "Not at the moment."
Again she blushed from the roots of her blond, blond hair to the collar of her dress. Dropping her chin, she admitted, "I wanted to meet you. My brother wouldn't introduce us."
"Or allow us to be introduced."
Her head shot up. "I don't understand."
Gil had had his eye on her for all six months of his ownership of the Four Aces and had tried for an introduction a dozen times. "Matt Gruene talked to your brother." Who's a narrow-minded ass. "I tried to go through proper channels."
Excerpted from Caress of Fire by Martha Hix. Copyright © 1992 Martha Hix. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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