Van returned the wagon and his team to the livery and hurried through the falling snow to the shop. He mulled everything around on his trip back to town. There was more to his being recruited to help with the bank robbery and more between Crane and Judge Spencer. He could feel it. He didn’t share Ma’s confidence that Pa was a softer more tolerable man. If he did, he’d discuss his thoughts with Pa and Brett after dinner tomorrow. But unsure if he could forgive Pa, Van wasn’t ready to start up a confidence with the man.
He opened the shop door. Tessa vigorously whisked the straw broom across the floor. Her bent head and jerky movements showed her agitation. Van crossed the room in four long strides.
“What’s wrong?” He captured her arms, stilling her motion. Her green eyes stared at him unseeing and full of hardness.
She shook out of his grasp, taking several steps back. Her glare stunned him. What had transpired while he was gone to put loathing in her eyes?
“He was here. Asked for you.” She held the broom between them like a weapon.
“Who was here?” Judging from the distance in her voice and the heat in her eyes, her feeling toward him had changed. But why?
“Crane. He walked in here, studied things and said to tell you he was here. Why did he come here to see you? Are you … and he…”
“Damn! Why did he come here? I want nothing to do with the man.” He took two steps forward. “Did he hurt you?” He’d kill the man if he laid a hand on Tessa. The outlaw had caused her enough pain.
“Why did he want to see you?” She lowered the broom a touch, but the anger and hurt in her eyes said he’d have to watch his words and his actions until she realized he no longer had a connection with the man.
His chest ached to think she believed he would have any kind of an alliance with the man. “I don’t know. All I know is I don’t want him around you.” He took another step toward her and took the broom out of her hands. Her stomach growled. “Didn’t you eat?”
She shook her head.
“Run upstairs and eat. I’ll watch the shop.” He nodded to the back room. She hesitated, then picked up a basket by the stove and walked briskly out of the room.
Why did Crane come here? Leave such a cryptic message? Walking into his store in broad daylight, who saw him? Van churned the thoughts over and over in his head the rest of the day and long into the night. Tessa didn’t come downstairs until after he’d crawled into the hard pallet on the floor of the storage room. He heard her light footsteps cautiously creep down the stairs and slip out the back door. He fought to stay in bed. He wanted to follow and make sure she was all right, but he also knew if she was still in a snit, an argument in the alley wouldn’t help his situation.
The door opened and she slipped in. He rose up on one elbow. “Is everything all right?”
Her footsteps halted. He stared at the dark shadow.
“Fine.” Her voice faltered. “I was just tired.”
He stood, moving through the darkness toward her. “I would never do anything to hurt you.”
His outstretched hands found her arms. She didn’t pull away. He drew her to his chest and embraced her. “All I want is for you to be happy.”
Her arms circled his waist and she squeezed, drawing their bodies even tighter together.
“I know. I-when he said who he was, if I’d had a gun at that moment I would have shot him.” She shivered. “I don’t like the way the hatred claimed me.” She nuzzled her head against his chest. Dampness penetrated his long johns, and he realized she was crying.
“Shh…” He tipped her head up. “Don’t cry over that man or the feelings he brought. You have a right to feel the way you do. Just don’t kill him. That’s making yourself no better than him.”
Her head nodded. He wished he dared turn on the kerosene lamp, but he didn’t want the deputy making nightly rounds to think something was wrong and find them embracing.
“Let me walk you up the stairs.”
“That isn’t necessary.” She started to pull away.
He held her against his side and started up the stairs. “Yes, it is.” His body had come to life the moment he touched her. The heat and yearning coursing through him battled with his good sense. He wanted one kiss and the best way to get it would be as he left her at her door.
They climbed the stairs side by side, his arm wrapped around her shoulders. At the top, he turned her to face him.
“I can’t wait another minute,” he whispered and covered her lips with his. Warm, soft, and even better than he remembered from their first kiss. Van tilted his head and deepened the kiss. Her arms circled his neck, and he drew her body against his. His hands roamed down her back, feeling each bump of her ribs and back bone, then over the slight curve of her backside. She wore only a flannel nightdress, giving him intimate access to the feel of her body.
She moaned and her lips parted, inviting him to enter. His tongue delved into the hot sweet recesses of her mouth. She mimicked his actions, following his tongue move for move. The heady sensation of her passionate advance pushed him past rationalization. He wanted her, needed her.
He picked her up and carried her to the bed. Her body stiffened and her lips pulled away.
When she started to fight him, he dropped her on the bed.
“Sleep tight,” he said through a constricted throat. His lead feet carried him down the stairs and back to his hard pallet. Exactly what he needed to dispel the passion from his body and realize, if he wanted to have Tessa in his life, he had to go about it with a sane head and court her.