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Comanche Haven by Catherine Wolffe (Amazon link)
Seth sank into the steaming tub of water the housekeeper had prepared for him, almost immediately, after reaching his room. Steam rose in a cloud around him. He leaned back and closed his eyes. The numbing power of the hot water was doing a fine job on the aches and pains in his body. What the water couldn’t fix, the whiskey in his hand could, so he closed his eyes and tried to forget the trouble brewing around him.
Dark hair and cool green eyes appeared in his mind’s eye. Ty and he had traveled hard to make it back by sunset. He hadn’t wanted to leave Celia alone any longer than was absolutely necessary. Jake’s report on her activities had him wishing he’d sent the foreman to Tyler in his stead.
While the bath and whiskey did their job, Seth had time to consider what Jake had told him. Celia had slipped out and gone to meet Red Bear. It didn’t set well. But the fact she’d gone alone and told no one was more disturbing. Right now, he was in no mood for deceit under his own roof.
The knock at the door startled him. Seth sloshed water as he sat upright in the tub. “Who is it?”
“It’s me, Celia… ma…may I come in?”
“Wait a minute,” he snapped, more harshly than he had intended. It took a moment of stretching at the low-slung table just out of arms reach, but Seth managed to retrieve and strategically place a towel over the tub for her sensibilities. “Come on in. It’s open.”
“I didn’t get a chance to speak to you when you arrived,” Celia said as she slipped into the room. Her polite but prim demeanor faltered when she spotted him in the hip bath. “Oh! Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were bathing. I’ll come back later.”
She wheeled and her hand was already on the doorknob when Seth called out to her, “No, wait. It’s okay. I’m covered.” His wry smile topped off the smoothing of the cloth over the big brass tub.
Slowly, Celia turned.
He had to chuckle to himself. It was admirable she didn’t turn scarlet or wave away the vapors or some such nonsense at the sight of a half-naked man. He reminded himself of others who would do just that when presented with a bit of male anatomy. Satisfaction surfaced. Probably seen all there was to see in the surgery theater, Seth mused. With a waving of his wrist, he motioned her in as his smile became wicked. “Come on in and keep me company. I might even get you to scrub my back later.” He took a deep swallow of the whiskey before setting his glass on the stand beside the tub. The dark liquor burned all the way down and still didn’t numb the feeling of need growing in him. He watched her out of eyes gone to slits. For the life of him, he couldn’t seem to curb the irritated bend to his mood.
Cutter got up from his post near the hammered brass tub and wagging his tail, before sashaying over to greet Celia as she neared the bed.
Traitor, Seth mused as the dog thumped his tail with affection for the room’s newest member.
Lighting on the bench at the foot of his bed like a butterfly, Celia relaxed fractionally and let out an exaggerated breath when she noticed the hint of mischief in his expression. “I never know how to take you.” Trying to get her bearings back, she reached out and rubbed the cow dog behind the ears. “I wanted to ask if you’d heard anything about the… the… about my father’s murder while you were in town?” She finished in a rush. “You went to the sheriff, right?”
Nodding, Seth cupped water in both of his big hands and splashed it into his face. He was in no hurry to respond as he wiped the back of his hand across his face and then shook his head like a dog sending droplets of water in all directions. “I went to alert Sheriff Cole and Major Chance at the Fort like I said I would.” Seth reached for the bar of soap and began to scrub. “We checked the tracks leading away from Lone Eagle’s campsite. They headed north into Oklahoma territory. We lost them not too far from the boundary to the reservation.” He shook his head. The ponies still carried Army issue shoes. The riders are either U.S. Army or somebody with balls of steel. They left a lot of signs and discriminating evidence. I’m thinking they did it on purpose. Whoever is responsible wants it to look like the army did it.”
His gaze met and held hers for a minute. “I spoke to Jake earlier.” He waited a beat. “How did you like your ride?” Watching her closely, Seth waited.
Celia looked away, “Fine.” She worked her hands in her lap. The knuckles she gripped turned white under the pressure. “Your place is so big. I still have trouble with how vast it is.”
Seth watched as Celia placed her hand on her stomach and rubbed.
“We spent most of the day seeing a great deal of your place. It’s beautiful,” Celia concluded quickly.
Too quickly, Seth thought, Nerves – not a good sign.
“Jake said we’d only skimmed the surface. He mentioned how far away the outlying line shacks sat. He reminded me the Shooter Creek remained the northern boundary of your spread. He said you own everything almost to the Oklahoma territory.”
Seth watched her and only nodded. His expression remained benign.
Celia responded with her hands moving to grip the bench on either side of her. “Do you need help with your back?” She rose.
The question came unexpectedly. To his surprise, Celia got up and walked toward the tub. Leaning over the squat table to retrieve the soap, she began to lather his back.
What was she up to? Seth stalled in the water. His next thought had nothing to do with the cooling temperature of the water. He realized the true reason he’d been driven to get back to the ranch so quickly, which had nothing to do with her safety and everything to do with her.
The stroke of her fingers along his back had him tensing and sent blood rushing to his shaft. Seth closed his eyes and willed himself to focus on something else. His back muscles twitched as her hands glided up and down in a slow, rhythmic dance along his backbone.
“Seth, I wanted you to know how much I appreciate all you’ve done for me.” Her voice sounded like distant music. “I don’t think I would have made it without you.”
Trying valiantly to regain his composure, Seth sat in the water in silence for a time. Her words sounded sincere. Then as if driven, he slowly leaned back in the tub. He had to admit, if she was toying with him, she was damn good at deception. “No need to thank me, Celia. You’ll always be able to count on me.” Seth took mental stock one more time and assured himself he was in control. But the need churning inside him had other ideas. One look into those emerald green orbs and his heart gave a little lurch. His mind simply stopped working.
Celia’s fingers continued to glide over his soap-slicked skin. With each stroke, her fingertips were sending molten heat straight to his loins.
They reminded him of satin. He wanted more.
Before he realized what he was doing, he reached out and clasped the nape of her neck. Feeling her start to pull back, Seth whispered, “Relax girl, I won’t hurt you.” With his eyes on her lips, Seth hesitated briefly, searching for something – anything, which would let him know how she would react. Then he reached up and took her mouth with his. The hunger breaking free had nothing to do with sensibilities. This time he coaxed her mouth to open and let him taste the sweetness of her tongue. Seth’s pulse hummed as her lips gave warm and tender under his. She opened for him like a flower and Seth tasted the warmth of her lips, which were pliant against his. He groaned softly. She tasted like honey and the line of her throat like cream heated by the sun. He thoroughly explored the inside of her mouth and then the slender neckline she offered when her head lolled to the side on her own gentle moan. Slowly he discovered every slick, wet curve of her mouth. His teeth grazed her lips and tasted the salt of hunger in her response. Did she want him as much as he wanted her right now?
Celia exhaled and her eyelids fluttered shut.
The hunger growing inside him knew only one end. Long agile fingers sank deep into the silken strains of her hair as he levered himself up the side of the tub angling for a better hold on her warm skin. Cupping her head in his big hand, he kissed her again. This time it was with the fever of need. A need he’d, long ago, locked away. It surged up from the cold depths of his own desire and rocked Seth with its intensity. Taking her mouth in an attack meant to capture and possess, Seth realized too late he was losing the battle with reason, but he’d lost the will to care. She tasted so good. Her head fell to the side on another soft sigh of pleasure. Seth found himself trailing long wet, ardent kisses down her neck. The soft dip of her collarbone was a perfect place for him to linger. He could feel the blood pulsing there, just under her skin. Her smell, the smell of roses was all around him. Another soft moan escaped. So full of life, a life he’d thought he’d never hold in his arms again. The warning bells were going off in his head by then. His blood was roaring in his ears. He was in too deep to heed any of it. He felt like a drowning man with no desire for rescue.
It took a moment for it to register. She was saying something and the air around him was cooling as she drew back.
“Seth…” Her voice was a fragile murmur as she pushed gently at his chest. “I think I better go and let you get out.” Celia shifted and disengaging his hands. She slowly rose from the edge of the tub.
His eyes were on hers, those deep green orbs, pulsing with a thinly veiled need. He could see it lying there in their depths, a molten-hot, burning fire. Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone – snuffed out like a candle flame. Logic reined once more.
“You better get out before you turn into a prune,” she said primly. The words, spoken so plainly, sounded strange coming from the swollen mouth Seth saw was bruised red with passion. Her lip quivered before she bit down on it.
He noted a small mark along her neck where, he surmised, he’d used his teeth. Some base demon urged him to pull her back and take what was so close. He simply stared. Unable to say anything, Seth watched her cross her arms over her breasts in a protective gesture. There was no question in his mind she’d been affected by the kiss. She ran her tongue over her lips again and looked away. Seth watched her as she brushed deliberately at the front of her day dress before she spoke again.
Long, sooty lashes rose and Celia looked once more into his face. “I better go,” she whispered. Quietly heading for the door, she quickened her pace when, she heard him sloshing water as he rose.
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