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COMANCHE MAGIC (reissue)
JULY HEAT HUNG OVER THE YARD LIKE A BLANKET. A cluster of bees hummed nearby, feeding on drips of whey that seeped through the butter muslin hanging from the fence. In the barnyard adjacent to the house, the cow lowed every once in a while, harmonizing with the shrill and sporadic grunting of the pigs. Not to be outdone, the hens in the squat log chicken coop clucked and flapped every time the breeze lifted, which wasn't nearly often enough, given the temperature.
After unbuttoning his blue chambray shirt to midchest, Chase Wolf repositioned his shoulder against the pine tree and closed his eyes to absorb the smells. He smiled at the images they brought to mind of his boyhood and other July days when he had run wild along the creek that bordered his parents' property.
This summer he didn't reckon he'd be doing much running. The smile on his mouth thinned to a grim line. He considered rolling himself a smoke, then decided against it for fear it might make him cough. Coughing, like all other activities that called for muscle movement, was a luxury he couldn't afford, not with three cracked ribs. This would teach him not to let any moss grow under his feet the next time two logs tried to make a sandwich out of him.
If he didn't move, the pain wasn't too bad. Moving, though—that posed a problem. Until recently, Chase had never realized how active he was. Maybe it was the Comanche blood in his veins, but unlike some folks, he didn't cotton much to idleness. Like now, for instance. How long had it been since he'd sat in his ma's backyard under this old tree, listening to the bees hum? A long spell. Twenty-five last March, he had been working the timber since age eighteen. There hadn't been much time for lollygagging since. Now he had nothing but time on his hands, and he was a mite bored.
Placing a hand over his ribs, Chase shifted his hips on the mattress of pine needles and bent a denim-clad leg. A hank of mahogany hair fell into his eyes. He stared through the strands for a bit to get a new perspective on things. Then he spent some time counting the scars on the heel of his boot, came up with a tally of twenty-two, and passed some time pondering how they'd gotten there. Probably when he was logrolling, he decided, which led him down a path of pleasant memories that occupied him for a few more minutes.
When he resurfaced to the present, he rolled himself a smoke, ribs or no, struck a lucifer, and inhaled. His tobacco tasted like dry cow dung. He needed fresh. Maybe later on this afternoon he would mosey over to the general store, mosey being the key word. It hurt like hell to walk.
With a disgusted grimace, he pinched the fire off his cigarette with calloused fingertips, pocketed the unsmoked portion, and closed his eyes, determined to take a nap, since he had nothing better to do. A bit later, he awoke to the sound of feminine giggles coming from down along the creek. He listened for a second and identified one of the giggles as belonging to his sister, Indigo. Twenty-four to his twenty-five, she had a husband and two children now. He grinned. Leave it to her to beat the heat by playing in the creek. The other wives in town, including his ma, were at home doing household tasks, a fair number baking bread if the smells on the morning air were an indication.
Chase pushed to his feet, drawn toward the creek by the sound of laughter. He might not be up to romping in the water, but sitting on the sidelines to watch was bound to be more entertaining than sitting all alone in Ma's backyard.
With one hand pressed over his side, he moved slowly through the sun-dappled woods. Dogwood and myrtle branches networked above him. The polished green leaves of Oregon grape and poison oak bushes formed a dense undergrowth at the base of the trees, the creamy white of dogwood and the deep pink of wild rhododendron blossoms lending splashes of vivid color. Wild strawberries encroached on the path, their vines contrasting with the red clay. The sight of them made his mouth water. As kids he and Indigo had gotten the stomach complaint at least once a year from gorging themselves on the sweet fruit. He cast a fond glance around, saddened because those days were forever lost to him. In his mind lingered the echoes of long-ago voices and laughter. There truly was no place quite like home, he guessed.
Amber warmth shafted through the oak and pine limbs above him, bringing a sheen of sweat to his brow and making the chambray of his shirt stick to his shoulders. He swiped a strand of hair from his eyes and winced at the resultant pain that knifed across his midriff. Taking care where he placed his booted feet, he finally reached the river rock that bordered Shallows Creek. Enjoying the mist that cooled the air, he paused in the shade of two intertwined oaks. More the fool he for not coming down here straight off. The banks of Shallows Creek always had provided a respite from the summer heat.
Heading toward the voices, Chase rounded a bend in the stream. Expecting to see his tawny-haired sister, he was surprised to see a petite blonde instead. If she was from Wolf's Landing, Chase had never met her. She was as pretty as a picture, not the kind a man with eyes was likely to forget. He leaned a shoulder against an oak, happy to stay hidden so he could enjoy the view.
Indigo's pet wolf, Sonny, napping in a spot of shade near the water, lifted his silver head and sniffed the air. An instant later, he spotted Chase. Recognition flickered in his golden eyes, and after a moment, he lowered his head back to his paws to resume his snooze. The instant of eye contact with the animal left Chase feeling oddly empty. There had been a time when he'd had the same gift for visual communication with animals and people that Indigo had. Not so anymore, compliments of these last seven years he'd been working away from home. Somewhere along the line he'd lost touch with that part of himself.
Chase shoved away the thought and returned his attention to the young woman in the stream. Stripped down to her camisole and bloomers, she was cavorting in the water with Chase's four-year-old nephew, Hunter. The drenched muslin of her undergarments was nearly transparent with wetness and clung to her body like the skin on an onion. The rosy nipples of her small breasts were taut with cold and thrust against the cloth in impertinent little peaks. Some men might say she had been shorted in the bust, but Chase maintained that anything more than a mouthful was a waste, anyway. Besides, with her tiny waist and coltish limbs, small, pink-tipped breasts were just the thing to set off her figure to perfection.
Content to stay right where he was, Chase lowered himself carefully to the ground and draped his arms over his bent knees. On a hot day like today, it'd be downright unchivalrous to show himself and spoil her swim. He was nothing if not thoughtful.
Apparently she was in competition with his nephew to catch salamanders, commonly known in these parts as water dogs. Over the last few years, the women in Chase's acquaintance had been preoccupied with more carnal pursuits, the exhibitions of their charms well-practiced and usually executed to the rhythm of bawdy saloon music. A grin settled on his mouth and he got himself situated a little more comfortably. This beat the hell out of watching Ma's whey drip.
Whoever she was, she looked like an angel. A shaft of sunlight ignited her golden hair, turning it to a halo around the crown of her head. She had petal white skin, as flawless as ivory in contrast to his Indian darkness. Her facial features were delicate and cameo perfect except for her small nose, which was so turned up at the end, she'd drown in a heavy rainstorm. He decided he liked that. It gave her an impish, little-girl appeal.
His gaze dropped to her waist and lower as she slogged through the shallows and pounced to catch a water dog. With little-boy enthusiasm, Hunter dived to reach their quarry before she did and sent up a spray. She shrieked and staggered, laughing as she rubbed the water from her eyes.
"Dibs!" Hunter cried.
"My foot! I saw it first!"
Hunter shot triumphantly to his feet, his small brown hands curled into tight fists around his slippery catch. "I'm up to—" He broke off and frowned. "How many do I got?"
"Three," she said with an impish giggle.
"No, sir! You're cheatin'!"
"Pay attention to your ma during lessons so you learn to count, and I won't be able to cheat."
Holding the water dog threateningly aloft, Hunter lunged at her. With another shriek, she sloshed through the water to get away from him, her laughter chiming like crystal. "Don't you dare, you little rascal! You stick that thing in my drawers, and I'll drown you!"
"Hunter Chase Rand!" Indigo called from somewhere out of Chase's sight. "You drop that water dog down her bloomers, and I'll tell your pa. You mind your manners."
Unintimidated, Hunter made a grab. The blonde clutched the waist of her underwear and fled a bit farther to get safely beyond his reach. She had a perfect little ass with plump cheeks that jiggled just enough to kindle a man's imagination and make him wonder how soft she'd feel pressed against him. When she turned toward him again, he could see the golden triangle between her slender thighs. He lifted his gaze to her breasts, and his mouth drew up as though he were sucking a lemon.
Too late, Chase began to wonder if sitting here was such a champion idea. It had been a spell since he'd had a woman, and suddenly his jeans felt about a half-size too small at the inseam. As frustrating as it had been watching Ma's whey drip, at least he hadn't ached for a taste. He hated cottage cheese with a passion. Too bad he couldn't say the same for tight little nipples that begged to be kissed.
With the short attention span typical of a four-year-old, Hunter spotted another water dog and went chasing upstream after it. The angel with the turned-up nose went unnaturally still. Chase dragged his gaze upward from her breasts and found himself staring into the biggest, most startled-looking green eyes he'd ever seen. Now that he came to think of it, they were the only true green eyes he'd ever seen, not greenish blue or gray, but the color of new spring leaves.
She gasped and cupped her hands over her breasts. The next instant, she knelt in the water to hide her nether regions. Chase stared, unable to think of anything to say. Howdy, maybe, but that didn't seem appropriate. Hello, there? That didn't do it, either.
He settled for, "It sure is a hot one, isn't it?"
She jerked at the sound of his voice, and her small face flushed. Chase could have sworn every drop of blood in her body surged to her cheeks, but upon further study, he noted she was pink all over. Dark as he was, that was a phenomenon worthy of speculation. On the few occasions in his life when he had grown flushed, no one but he had known. This girl lit up like a whore's lantern.
When she remained in the same frozen position for several seconds, Chase started to feel ashamed of himself. The sensation started with a tight feeling in his chest that rose to the region of his throat. He reckoned she wasn't too happy to find out she had male company when she was dressed only in her camisole and bloomers, both sopped and see-through. Not that he could blame her.
"Chase Kelly? Is that you?"
Indigo stepped out from behind a stand of brush, her sleeping daughter, Amelia Rose, cradled in her arms. Indigo was dressed in only her camisole and drawers as well, but given the fact it was her brother come calling, she didn't blush straight off. That came a few seconds later when it began to dawn on her what he'd been up to. Her big blue eyes flashed with silver fire.
"Chase Kelly Wolf, for shame! What're you doing, hiding up there? Spying on us? Didn't Ma ever teach you any manners?"
If Ma had, Chase guessed he had forgotten. He was starting to feel like a low-down skunk. Acutely aware of those startled green eyes still riveted on him, he forgot his sore ribs and shrugged. The movement made him wince. He considered thinking up a quick lie, but even with seven years' practice, lying still didn't come slick to him. "I was bored," he admitted. "When I heard y'all down here, I didn't figure you'd mind if I joined you."
"Which we wouldn't. If you had joined us." Indigo came striding up the bank, her graceful legs flexing under her bloomers. She handed Chase his sleeping niece. "Make yourself useful while I find Franny's clothes." As she scampered back down the bank, she cried, "For shame, for shame. I beg his pardon, Franny. To say he's an ape-brain would be a compliment."
Chase Kelly? She made him sound like a ten-year-old. And an ape-brain? Leave it to a sister to keep a man humble. It had been a while since anyone had dared to call Chase names.
He smoothed Amelia Rose's curly hair and tried to get comfortable holding her. At eighteen months, she was a sweet armful, baby-plump and pink all over. She had her daddy's raven hair and eyelashes, with her ma's delicate features. Her lacy undershirt was damp from playing in the creek. Chase curled a hand over her bare bottom and smiled. Now he knew where the saying "soft as a baby's behind" had originated. Her skin felt like velvet.
"Hi, Uncle Chase!" Hunter came slogging from the water, his skinny little body glistening like wet bronze in the sunshine. His grandfather's namesake, the boy looked more Comanche than white, his hair pitch-black and as straight as a bullet on a windless day. "You wanna catch water dogs?"
Chase looked over the child's bobbing head to see Franny, the green-eyed angel, trying to wade from the creek without showing off any of her charms. Since he had already seen all there was to see, he could have saved her the trouble, but he figured Indigo might hang him if he said as much. "I'm too stoved up with these ribs for water dog chasing, Hunter. Maybe another time."
"Ah, please. Playin' with girls ain't no fun."
Chase figured that depended on how the girls were dressed and who was doing the playing. Hunter was obviously too young to appreciate the female form, which explained why his ma and her friend Franny felt free to flit around in front of him in nothing but their small clothes.
Keeping his gaze politely averted from the women, Chase watched Hunter return to the creek. Within seconds, the boy recovered from his disappointment and dove for another water dog. When Chase chanced another look in the women's direction, Franny stood on the bank wearing a white choker-collared, long-sleeved blouse and a blue flared skirt, both of which clung to her wet body. Still rosy-cheeked, she pushed ineffectually at her mussed hair, repinning the twist at her crown.
"Franny, I'd like you to meet my brother, Chase Kelly Wolf," Indigo said sharply. "As I'm sure you recall, I told you the other day that he was home recuperating from a logging accident."
Indigo's tone made Chase feel like a case of influenza. He dragged his gaze from the back of the blonde's clinging skirt and said, "Pleased to meet you, Franny." He thought "Fanny" would suit her better. "I apologize for interrupting your swim."
Her face flooded with color again. "That's quite all right," she said in so low a voice he had difficulty catching the words. She swatted at her skirt and avoided his gaze. "Well, Indigo, I think I'll be getting along."
With that, she nodded in Chase's direction, still not looking at him. Then she jerked on a bonnet with wide ruching that concealed her face. After tying the chin ribbon, she grabbed her shoes and wadded stockings, then started up the footpath. Since Chase was sitting in the middle of it, holding a sleeping child, she came to a halt after taking several steps and lifted her wide green eyes to his. Chase knew damned well she wouldn't dare strike off through the brush, not unless she wanted a bad case of poison oak. In these hills, the stuff grew as thick as hair on a dog's back, and most people were allergic to it. Especially fair-skinned individuals.
Even shadowed by the bonnet ruching, those eyes of hers packed a wallop. Chase gave her a lazy smile, oddly pleased that he was sitting in her way. Suddenly, the thought of staying most of the summer in Wolf's Landing with nothing better to do than twiddle his thumbs didn't seem such a cross to bear. "No need to hurry off, Franny."
The tip of her turned-up nose pulsed scarlet. "I really must. I believe I can get around you. Please don't disturb yourself."
Chase had no intention of twitching so much as a muscle. As she stepped around him, he turned an eye to her bare feet and the fetching glimpse of ankle her uplifted skirt provided. She had slender little toes with delicate nails that put him in mind of translucent flower petals. A fanned network of fragile, delineated bones graced the top of each foot. He raised his gaze to her face.
Her eyes met his, and for an instant, Chase felt as if he had once again been sandwiched between two logs. Talk about pretty, this young woman gave a whole new definition to the word. It wasn't so much that her face was perfect. What struck Chase was how sweet and innocent she looked, the kind who made a man want to fight mountain lions for her and win. He forgot all about his ribs.
Not wishing to startle her, he tempered his voice and said, "I hope you'll come again, Franny. Maybe next time you'll stop by the house afterward and have some of Ma's lemonade. It's the best in Wolf's Landing."
For a moment, she froze there and stared at him, for all the world as if she couldn't credit her ears. Then her face flushed crimson again. Without a word, she swept on by and disappeared into the trees, never looking back.
"That wasn't very nice," Indigo said in a quavery voice. "How could you, Chase? I didn't think you had it in you to be so mean."
Chase's bemused smile disappeared and he turned to regard his sister, who stood near the water, hands on her hips, her tawny head tipped angrily to one side. Chase didn't mind being accused of orneriness when he had it coming, which he admitted was most of the time, but he felt this reprimand was uncalled for.
"It was mean to invite her for lemonade?"
"You know very well she'd never impose on Ma. Not to say Ma wouldn't welcome her, and our father, too. But Franny's too sweet to put them on the spot that way. You know how all the holier-than-thou people in this town are. Tongues'd buzz for a week if a woman of Franny's occupation was to call on anybody."
Chase digested that. "Did I miss something?" He glanced around to make sure Hunter was still preoccupied with catching water dogs. "The way you talk, you'd think she was the local whore."
Indigo's eyes went wide. "Surely you can think of a politer word than that, and it isn't funny, you acting as if you don't know. I swear, working with those rough-talking loggers has ruined you for respectable company."
A vision of Franny's sweet face swept through Chase's head. With those gigantic, innocent eyes of hers, she couldn't be a—No, it was impossible. Chase didn't claim to be a connoisseur of women, but after living in logging camps for so many years, he sure as hell recognized a fancy skirt when he saw one.
"Indigo, are you trying to tell me Franny's a whore?"
She made a frustrated sound. "Don't call her that, I said. What she is is my best friend, and I won't have you saying mean things about her. If you've got to call her something, call her an unfortunate."
Chase didn't give a shit what Indigo called it; a whore was a whore. An image flashed in his head of the flamboyant, curly-headed blonde with the garishly painted face who worked over at the saloon. Out of respect for his parents, Chase had never frequented the upstairs rooms of the Lucky Nugget during his brief visits home, so he hadn't paid close attention to the soiled dove who worked there, but now that he thought on it, he recollected that the woman harkened to the name of Franny. He narrowed an eye. "That girl is the prosti—" He broke off and swallowed. "That's the unfortunate who works over at the Lucky Nugget?"
"Sort of?" Chase stared at his sister. This was one of her jokes. Leave it to Indigo to try pulling his leg. "What d'ya mean, sort of?"
She wrinkled her nose, clearly impatient with his limited male intelligence. "She isn't exactly there when customers come calling." She shrugged a slender shoulder. "It's difficult to explain. Just don't be ornery to her. Promise me, Chase?"
A sort of whore who wasn't exactly there when her customers came calling? Chase could see that this made perfect sense to Indigo, but damn it to hell if he understood what she was talking about.
"It isn't her fault she's in this pickle," Indigo went on. "There but for the grace of God goes every other woman in this town. You men haven't given us females a lot of options when it comes to earning our bread. Franny truly is an unfortunate."
Chase could see that Indigo was dead serious. He shot a glance up the bank at the spot where Franny, the angel, had disappeared. Then he looked back at his sister, still unable to believe what he was hearing.
Franny, the blushing, green-eyed angel, was a prostitute?
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