Author’s note: In search of evidence of his brother’s killer, Jess takes a job at a bordello to investigate the nefarious man who runs the saloon and the town. Trinity has been teaching the ladies of the evening who live there how to read. As Trinity and Jesse begin to trust one another, they can no longer deny the emotions building between them. Mary June and the other girls dress Trinity in a provocative costume and arrange for her and Jesse to experience a night to remember. Fate has other plans.)
The next morning, Jesse scowled and paced about the kitchen.
“No. I won’t see that she gets it back.” Sol tied a knot and clipped the thread. “You’ll have to do that yourself.” He poked the sewing needle into a pincushion and held the calico out to Jesse.
Fortunate to have coaxed Sol into mending the rent dress seams, Jesse accepted the bundle and figured he’d best not push his luck.
“If you hurry,” Sol continued, “you can catch Trinity alone in the backroom before her students arrive.”
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“Yes. She’s teaching some of your ladies to read and write.”
When the heck had all this taken place? He thought he knew what was going on in town, in the saloon. It must be a conspiracy—all the women surrounding him were out to drive him crazy.
Sol gave a little smile, as if he found the situation amusing.
With a sigh, Jesse turned toward the door to the backroom. He wanted to see Trinity, more than he dare admit to anyone, even himself. Yet the idea made him feel as if he’d just agreed to jump off of a cliff. Each time he saw her, it became harder and harder to ignore the voice in his head telling him she was the best thing to ever happen to him.
There were six students now, and the list was growing — so was her affection for her new friends. Teaching these women to read made her happy, made her want to get out of bed in the morning, gave her life purpose.
The door to the house opened. Expecting Sol, she smiled and glanced up, but the words good morning never reached her lips. Jesse stood there instead, holding her wadded-up ruined dress, looking like he was clutching the torn pieces of his life in his hands. Expectation and remorse shadowed his expression, reminding her of the first day they had met.
She strangled the urge to tell him nothing mattered except the way he made her feel. But it did matter. He’d been living down the street for weeks and never bothered to come to see her. If they hadn’t collided on the stairs yesterday, like two runaway railcars, she wouldn’t even have known he was in town.
“I’m sorry about your dress.”
“You always seem sorry about something.” Her words were harsh, but he didn’t retaliate, as if he agreed, and that made her feel all the worse. “Why are you tormenting me? Why do you tell me to keep my distance one day and visit me the next?” He set the dress on an old trunk and shoved his hands into his pockets as if he didn’t know what to do or say. Didn’t know — or didn’t trust her with his answer? And why would he? She hadn’t confided in him either. Their misgivings and unexpressed emotions stood between them solid as a wall.
“Is there any other particular reason you wanted to see me?” If only he’d say the words she longed to hear.
“I guess not.”
Hope died a sudden death. “Then you won’t need any particular reason to take your leave.”
Turning her back to him, she retrieved one of the books from the table. As she marked the passage to be read that morning, she heard him make his way across the room. When she glanced up, the backdoor to the alley stood open and Jesse was gone — along with another tiny piece of her heart.
Mixed voices came from the same direction, and Mary June appeared at the door. “How is it you know our new boss?” The women drifted in, each taking a seat.
Avoiding the question, Trinity collapsed into a chair across from them. Her cheeks burned hot, and she was sure they were as flushed as they felt.
Mary June leaned forward and studied her more closely. “Is that the man you told us about?”
“Hot and bother,” Mary June shrieked. “No wonder you surrendered your heart so easily.”
Trinity tried to shush Mary June before she said more, but it was already too late.
Kate and Annie scooted their chairs closer.
“You’ve shared the pillow ticking with our Mr. Smith?” they squealed in unison.
“Was he terrific?”
“What did he look like without his clothes?”
“Was he hung like a bull?”
“Was he as hot as he makes me feel when I see him swagger past my open door at night?”
“Easy, girls.” Mary June came to Trinity’s rescue.
“They only kissed. Besides, she wouldn’t know well hung from ham strung. She’s a virgin.”
“You needn’t reveal such a thing like it was an affliction,” Kate defended. “Besides, it’s a condition easily changed.”
“Didn’t you enjoy his kisses?” Annie asked, amazement evident in her voice.
“Of course, I did, but Jesse’s barely given me the time of day since.”
“He’s been awfully busy,” Mary June defended.
“He’s become Mr. Briggs’s right-hand man.”
“I don’t care if he’s the right-hand man of President Cleveland.” But inside, she did care — desperately. It filled her with dread to be reminded Jesse had become more involved with the unscrupulous Mr. Briggs — courting disaster on bended knee, heading for trouble at a full gallop. Yet she refused to believe Jesse was enamored of money and power. A man who believed in poetry could not be a true mercenary at heart. A man who believed in the magic of moonlight would not honor deceit by the light of day.
“You should join us for the party Sunday afternoon?” Annie invited out of the blue.
Trinity spun around to face Jesse head-on. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here, remember. What are you doing here? I told you to stay away from this place.”
“I’m attending a birthday party.” Her surprise at seeing Jesse quickly turned to desire, warm as liquid sunshine and she felt like a flower yearning for the light.
He glanced around the empty room. “Are we early or late?”
“I don’t know.”
“I think perhaps we’re both right on time and Mary June planned this whole surprise.”
Whether they’d been tricked or not, Trinity longed for Jesse to say all that really mattered was they were together. But he didn’t. He just kept staring at her while silence hung in the air, heavy as the fragrance of honeysuckle on a hot summer night.
Jesse narrowed his gaze, his expression turning dark. “What the heck are you wearing?” His voice, hard as flint, cut to the quick. “I don’t need any new girls on the payroll.”
Her cheeks grew hot. How could she have forgotten her attire?
Recalling what her friends said about first time love and not letting the moment pass into a lifetime of regret, she ignored his harsh words.
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“You don’t like my costume?”
His gaze jumped to her face. There was fire in his eyes, but not anger. Now he studied her slowly — his gaze almost a physical touch. “I never said I didn’t like it.”
“I could take it off if you prefer.” She toyed with the ribbon tied at her waist.
A ragged, guttural noise was his only response before he found his voice. “What I want isn’t important.” Even now his voice wavered. “Where’s Mary June?”
The question took her off guard, and hot jealousy bolted through her. How could he think of another woman when she stood before him so invitingly — with an almost hand-written invitation to do more than just look?
“Mary June? Why?”
“I need to speak with her.”
Hurt by his rejection, she headed for the door. “Have a seat. I’ll find her for you.”
Stalking past, she floundered on the unfamiliar high heeled boots, and bit back a curse.
Jesse reached to steady her, his fingers wrapping around her arm, holding fast. “You sound jealous.” He drew her close, turning her in the circle of his arms. Could he see the hurt in her eyes?
“You are jealous? Aw, hellfire, Trinity.”
He sounded as if he’d finally given himself over to some unseen force. She struggled against him. “I thought you wanted Mary June.”
“What I really want,” he whispered, “is you — only you.” He kissed one cheek and nuzzled her neck. His warm breath danced across her bare shoulder. A river of wanting rushed through her, and she wished she could dive in headfirst, willing the wild current to carry her along.
He levered her away from his chest. A troubled expression veiled his eyes. “I didn’t plan this.”
His shoulders relaxed, and a roguish smile softened his mouth. “Destiny seems to keep bringing us together. But I prefer the touch of your hands to those of Fate’s. And like I said before, third time’s a charm.”
She reeled at the implication. This was a huge step, an irrevocable step, a life altering step. She wanted so desperately to belong to someone — but the wanting and the getting were two entirely different things.
“Why don’t we have some wine?” As if he understood her need to catch her breath and think things through, Jesse left her side to uncork a bottle sitting on a nearby table. Filling two small goblets with ruby red liquid, he returned and extended one glass in her direction.
The only spirits she’d ever encountered came from sneaking a taste of Mother Hatfield’s apple cider. Although it made her a bit woozy, she’d liked it well enough. Surely a sip of wine wouldn’t hurt. As she reached for the glass, her stomach grumbled loudly — Mary June had thought of everything except food. To cover her embarrassment, she gave a little laugh and took a larger tasting of wine than planned. Unusually tart, it went straight to her head.
Jesse set his glass aside untouched. Reaching for the one she held, he did the same with hers.
“Care to dance?” He escorted her away from the table.
“But there’s no music.”
“Sure there is, if you listen closely.”
She heard the pounding of her heart and the humming of the blood rushing through her veins. She even thought she could hear Jesse’s heart in counterpoint to her own. Gliding across the room in Jesse’s arms transported her to a place of no worries, no time — only the here and now. She’d never felt so alive. Never felt so reckless.
When he stopped, the pleasures to come were reflected in his eyes, and she tried to remember what Mary June told her about being with a man. But her thoughts ran together as if seen through Etta’s prized kaleidoscope.
She blinked, trying to focus her vision. Something was wrong. She was falling with no end in sight. Rushing onward with no way to stop — the feeling exhilarating but frightening. She couldn’t breathe. Backing away she reached for the wine and downed what was left in her glass. Jesse still hadn’t touched his — she grabbed that too. Why was she so thirsty?
Jesse seized the glass from her hand. “Slow down, Trinity. We’ve all the time in the world.”
Did they? Why did her body feel so heavy, yet her mind light and floating away?
“Is it getting dark? Jesse, I’m having trouble seeing you.”
Jesse tasted the wine then spat it out on the floor. Tainted. But with what? He’d noticed the seal broken when he’d pulled the cork but figured Mary June had opened it for them. He gave another taste. Peyote — almost imperceptible.
Sweeping Trinity up into his arms, he hurried across the room, kicked open the door and roared, “Mary June.”
Gini Rifkin writes stories of romance and adventure in a variety of settings. When not writing, she cares for a menagerie of abandoned animals including ducks, goats, donkeys, and cats. Born in Illinois, she moved to Colorado and met her husband, Gary, and they shared their lives for 30 years, until his death. A little bit of him lives on in every hero she creates.