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Music drifted out of the gaily decorated church into the humid night air, wrapping around Sally Mae in a breath of lilting joy. She shifted her hip on the railing, leaned her head against the rough porch support and let the notes roll through her, not feeling the guilt so strongly this time. She was healing, from the inside out, the way Jonah said she would in what he'd considered a kindness. But then Jonah had been that type of man, always able to put others before him, always able to see God's light with no questions attached to the end of the message. His way had always been clear while hers was always a struggle.
Despite their differences, or maybe because of them, she'd been a good wife to him. Their marriage hadn't been the kind that little girls dreamed up while playing in the yard on a summer's day, but it had been the stable kind an impulsive woman valued. No matter what her inclinations, Sally had always known that if she couldn't find the answer in meditation, she would find it with Jonah. He'd been her rock, her balance, her guiding light, and when he'd been murdered, it had shattered her inner light into a never-ending pitch of black, to the point that she'd stopped feeling anything.
For months, she'd walked around in a daze, going through life as if she hadn't lost a vital part of her faith. And then the townsfolk had started coming to her for healing, seeing her as the next best thing to a doctor, and she'd found solace in being needed. From that solace had come a light that flickered through the darkness. Purpose. Life since Jonah's death hadn't been perfect, but she'd found a reason to get out of bed, a pretense on which to keep functioning, and gradually, that pretense had grown into a calling she'd only assumed was hers before Jonah's death. A calling that distracted her from the emptiness left by her husband's death. An emptiness she'd been able to ignore until six months ago when Tucker McCade had come back to town.
She grimaced and shifted her position, the star-studded vastness of the landscape striking her anew with its beauty, almost as though it was the first time she was seeing it. And maybe it was. Sometimes she felt that Jonah's death had wiped clean her understanding of who she was and left a stranger in its place. A stranger who was familiar in her love of these beautiful nights of endless sky and sparkling stars, yet foreign in her attraction to the big Texas Ranger.
She couldn't pinpoint what drew her to the man. Tucker was too big, too wild, too unpredictable to be described in easy terms. He breathed the violence she abhorred, seemed to believe in nothing but the moment, and the only emotion he let anyone see never made it to his eyes. He was a man of secrets and pain, larger than life, and nothing to which she should be attracted, and yet, somehow, he'd become part of her emerging life.
Laying temptation in front of a man like me is dangerous, pretty thing.
The remembered warning rumbled over her nerves in a deep promise. At the time, she hadn't thought she'd been laying anything anywhere, just tending the nasty cut on his arm, but looking back, she had stood closer than she'd needed to, and her fingers had lingered longer than they'd needed to. She blamed it completely on the utter fascination of the man. His eyes alone would be enough to fascinate most women—a shocking silver-gray in his dark face. But for her, the fascination went much deeper than his heavily muscled frame and harshly exotic good looks. For her, the fascination went to the glimpses of gentleness that he hid beneath a sarcastic wit and a propensity for violence. A gentleness she suspected he wore with the same ease with which he wore his guns and knives. Tucker McCade was a man who was very comfortable with himself, in the same way Jonah had been, but for different reasons. While Jonah had been comfortable with the path God had revealed to him and his ability to stick to it, Tucker was comfortable with the path he had laid out for himself, and comfortable with his ability to hold it where he wanted.
Sally shook her head, breathing deeply of the humid night air, fragrant with the aroma of the roasting pig that had been served up earlier. Tucker fought at the drop of a hat. He'd fought for Cissy Monroe, who'd changed her mind about prostituting herself to make ends meet, fought for a mongrel puppy pinned down after stealing a loaf of bread, and sometimes he just fought for reasons that had no discernible cause other than that he wanted to. It was in those moments that Tucker McCade scared her, because those were the moments when he was everything his reputation held him to be. Everything she feared. The very thing that had taken her husband. A man as lawless and as violent as this land.
But he was also beautiful and compelling in the way of all wild things. And, much like the music she was trying not to break her mourning by enjoying, he had a way of getting under her skin, reaching down to the primal part of her that responded on instinct and didn't give a hoot about logic or her Quaker beliefs. The part of her that wanted him very badly.
Closing her eyes, Sally indulged in a bit of harmless fantasy. Imagined Tucker was before her, so wonderfully tall he made her feel small while those broad shoulders of his blocked her view of anything else. Most of all the past. His silvery eyes, so startling above the high slash of his cheekbones, would stare down at her in that semimocking, farseeing way he had that made her both nervous and breathless at the same time. And that long, shiny black hair he wore parted in the center would fall free about his exotic face as he leaned down, enhancing his Indian ancestry to the point of challenge. Enhancing the power of his personality, the magnetism of his sexuality, the sensual fullness of his mouth… He'd reach for her with his big, callused hands that never touched, but instead lingered a scant breath from her skin, promising so much even as they withheld everything. Passion, pleasure, heaven. Hands that killed as easily as they gave joy. A shiver, half negation, half anticipation, shook her from head to toe.
As a Quaker and a pacifist, she never saw the point of fighting. She also didn't see the point of daring everyone around a body to make something of nothing, but Tucker definitely had a take-me-as-I-am-or-suffer-the-consequences element in his approach to the world. When a woman added the easy confidence with which he did everything to that disregard for convention, it totaled up to a potent combination. One she was finding harder and harder to resist in the bright light of common sense. One she didn't want to resist in the soft cloak of night with the moon shining brightly and her imagination so willing to sketch out a moment between them.
The music slowed to a swirling crescendo. Inside dancers would be gliding to a stop with varying degrees of style, poised for the next beat, the next partner. While for her, here in this dream, hers already waited. All she had to do was take that step toward Tucker, that forbidden, terrifying step she'd never managed in real life, because in many ways she was a coward. Not because he was half-Indian, not because society said that was wrong—in her world all women and men were equal—but because Tucker McCade stood with his feet in blood while she followed a different path. But still, in her dreams, she could have him, and in her dreams she took that step forward into the touch of his hand, into the warmth of his embrace, into the protection of his strong arms. She sighed as desire coursed through her body at the imagined culmination of months of longing.
He was a cruel man, some said. A hard man, others whispered. But, on an instinctive level, she knew the only thing she would find in his arms was joy. She'd seen the promise of it in his marvelous eyes, felt it vibrate between them whenever they got close, knew deep inside that Tucker would take care of her body the same way he took care of her safety. Totally and completely, whether she wanted it or not.
Folding her arms across her chest and balancing her weight, Sally Mae hugged the knowledge to her, letting it weave through the fantasy, granting to Tucker in dreams the access that she couldn't in the daylight. Access to touch, access to pleasure. Through the break between songs, when everything was possible, she gave her fantasy permission to move forward into the forbidden with a sense of inevitability. Tucker was a force to be reckoned with at any time, wearing down his quarry with slow, steady pressure. And when it came to resistance, she was apparently no stronger than the outlaws who inevitably surrendered to his law. She didn't want to fight him anymore. Fighting was draining, especially when what she was resisting was the one thing instinct said could color the darkness that enshrouded her life.
The music inside broke into a merry jig, the rhythm percolating through her blood, picking up her spirits, increasing the tempo of her fantasy, moving from languid to fervored as she imagined his long fingers closing around her wrists, skimming her forearms, her upper arms, her shoulders, the rough calluses abrading her skin in a delicious way that Jonah's smooth hands never had.
The edges of her dream rippled at the disloyalty. Tucker was Jonah's opposite in many ways, and it might be the biggest delusion in the world to believe he could be gentle with a woman, but this was her daydream, her escape, and she wanted to believe Tucker could be gentle enough to bring her to the point where she didn't need gentleness anymore. She forced herself to be honest. Past the point where Jonah had always stopped.
She flinched, shattering the last of her dream, and it was once again just her, the night and the longing that wouldn't go away. For the warmth of a man's embrace, the strength of his arms, the burn of his passion. And not just any man. She'd never been indiscriminate. Jonah had been her only lover and until his death she'd never looked at another man, and in those first weeks, hadn't even been aware that Tucker existed. But one day she'd looked up from the cup of coffee that had been placed in her hand, and there he'd been, his expression solemn, his touch gentle, his eyes reflecting the understanding of the loss she couldn't accept. He'd been there ever since, popping into her life when he came into town, sheltering her from the worst of everything while he was there, making sure she ate, making sure her patients didn't get ideas, making sure she was safe and cared for. Making sure she knew he waited. For her.
Moonlight became Sally Mae. It poured over the paleness of her skin with a lover's tenderness, bringing out the silver gilt in her hair, the smooth perfection of her skin, the mystery of who she was. By day Sally could hide the truth under a bustle of activity, but in the quiet of the night, her secrets escaped. Her loneliness, her hunger, her thirst for adventure. Tucker was a man who'd always preferred night and those things it embraced. Sally was no exception. The woman had integrity, beauty, and an appeal from which he couldn't walk away. Even if he should. She turned ever so slightly and he could just make out the gentle swell of her breast beneath the inevitable gray of her dress. He narrowed his gaze until the tempting curve filled his line of vision. He smiled. Thank God he'd never been much on "shoulds."
He watched her, perched like a fairy against the support, her arms crossed over her chest, her head dropping back. The blond of her hair not covered by the fine lawn cap perched on the back of her head shimmered against the dark wood. Sunshine and shadow. The woman was a mystery. Her shoulders lifted on a slight sigh. That emotion he'd noticed lately and couldn't place shifted over her expression, narrowing her eyes and drawing her upper lip between her teeth.
She'd been in that strange mood a lot lately. Full of a restlessness that teased the edges of his awareness. Made him hard with its potential promise. He'd like nothing better than to step out of the shadows, take her hands in his, uncross her arms and draw them around his neck, accepting the weight of her willowy body against his, her troubles as his. If it were left to him, he'd wrap her in cotton wool and keep her safe from any threat, any worry. But it wasn't up to him. Though it sure as hell should be up to someone. Sally took too many risks. And lately, whenever he came into town from the hunt for Caine's wife's sister, nerves jangled, senses hungry for respite, she'd be watching him with those dark gray eyes that had no idea how they tempted, and he'd forget why he was keeping his distance.
Sally Mae sighed and closed her eyes as the music leaped into the calm of the night. The same moonlight that cast her skin in a silvery glow provided the shadows in which he hid. He knew she wasn't aware of his presence. She'd be strung as tight as a drum if she had any inkling that he watched her. And not because she found him distasteful. He wasn't a fool. He knew Sally Mae wanted him, the same as he knew she'd never get serious about it. A brief affair to see how it would be to lie down with a savage, maybe, but he'd learned the hard way that a white woman did not openly take up with a man with Indian blood—not for love or money. She might enjoy him on the side, if the affair could be safely hidden, but there was too much hate between whites and Indians for any more than that to be tolerated. Already there were rumblings because he stayed in her barn.