Neither one of them said another word until they reached Billings 's way station. Henry came outside the rectangular log cabin to meet them. He was a middle-aged man, as bald as a rock, and just about as talkative. He greeted Emily-at least she thought he did-but he mumbled so, she couldn't make out a word he said. He wouldn't look at her either. He motioned her to follow him inside and showed her where she would sleep by pointing toward a closed door.
The main room had bunk beds lined against every wall. A long wooden table with benches on either side was in the center near a potbellied stove.
Travis acted as though he and Henry were good friends. During supper, he filled him in on all the latest news. Emily didn't say a word. She sat close to Travis's side at the table and tried to eat the foul-smelling soup she'd been offered. She couldn't get any of it down though, and since the proprietor wasn't paying any attention to her, she ate the brown bread and goat's milk instead and left the soup alone.
She excused herself as soon as she finished, but when she reached the door to her bedroom, she turned back to Travis.
"Will we reach Golden Crest tomorrow?"
He shook his head. "No, the day after," he said. "We'll stay with John and Millie Perkins tomorrow night. They rent out rooms in their home."
She told both men good night then and went to bed. Travis didn't see her again until she came outside the following morning with her satchel in her hands. She was wearing a pink dress with a matching sweater. The color suited her, and damn, but she was getting prettier and prettier.
He wanted to kiss her. He frowned instead and made a silent vow not to get near her today. He would keep the talk impersonal, no matter how much she provoked him.
The day's journey turned out to be extremely pleasant. Emily obviously didn't want to argue either, so the topics they ended up discussing were of a philosophical nature.
She confessed to being a voracious reader. He suggested she read The Republic. "It's all about justice," he explained. "I think you'll like it. I did. Mama Rose gave me a leather-bound copy along with a journal, and they're my most prized possessions."
"Why did she give you a journal?"
"She told me it was for me to fill with my accounts of all the cases I defend. She said that when I'm ready to retire, she wants me to be able to hold The Republic in one hand and the journal of my experiences in the other. It's her hope that the two will balance."
"Like the scales of justice," Emily whispered, impressed by the wisdom of Travis's mother.
She began to question him about Plato's work, and they debated justice and the law well into the afternoon. He thoroughly enjoyed sparring with her, so much so, he was sorry when the discussion ended.
It was his fault. He made the mistake of getting personal again.
"You're a contradiction, Emily. You've obviously been well educated, and I know you're smart…"
"But?" she asked.
"You're doing something that isn't smart at all. In fact, it's just plain stupid."
His bluntness got her all riled up. "I don't believe I asked for your opinion."
"You're getting it anyway," he replied. "You just gave me a passionate argument about honesty and justice, and surely you can see that the pretense you're thinking about pulling on your unsuspecting groom is downright dishonest."
It was the beginning of an argument that lasted until they reached the yard behind the Perkinses' house.
Travis did most of the talking. He gave her at least twenty reasons why she shouldn't marry O'Toole, but he believed his last reason was the most convincing one.
"You won't ever be able to keep up the charade of being a delicate little flower in need of pampering, Emily."
"I am delicate, damn it."
He snorted with disbelief. "You're about as fragile as a grizzly bear."
"If flinging insults is the only way you can argue your position, heaven help your clients."
Travis dismounted, then went to Emily's side and lifted her off her horse. His hands stayed around her waist much longer than necessary. "A good marriage takes effort, and honesty is a definite prerequisite."
"How would you know? You've never been married, have you?"
"That isn't relevant."
"Is flirting honest?"
He was caught off guard by her question and had to think about it for a minute before he answered. "Sometimes it's honest. Flirting is part of the courting ritual, but I personally think it's only honest when a woman flirts with the man she's set her cap on."
"'Set her cap on'? Are you telling me you think she should only flirt with the man she's already decided to marry?"
"That's what I'm saying all right."
"That's ridiculous. Flirting is the first step in a long process of finding the right man or woman. Men flirt too, you know. They just don't do it the same way women do."
"No, we don't."
Arguing with him was proving exasperating. "It's all a game, isn't it, that's played out between men and women. It's harmless too. Besides, men like women who flirt with them," she added, remembering how
Barbara had always been able to get every available man at a party to flit around her as though she were their queen bee.
"No, we don't like women who flirt with us," he insisted. "We're much more intelligent than you think we are, and we sure as certain don't like being manipulated."
"You needn't use that superior tone with me. I've patiently listened to you argue your position for the past hour, and I never once scoffed at you. Granted, I wanted to, but I didn't. Now it's my turn. It's too bad I can't prove my point to you."
She knew he was deliberately trying to frustrate her and refused to cooperate. She stared at the buttons on his shirt so she couldn't be distracted by his smile, and said, "If the circumstances were favorable, I'd prove to you right this minute that a delicate little flower gets far more attention than a practical one."
"You really believe a helpless little woman who flutters her eyelashes and hangs on a man's every word will get his full attention?"
"You're as nuts as a tree full of acorns."
She ignored his criticism. "I've done a complete study on this subject, Travis."
"What makes the circumstances favorable?" he asked, latching onto an earlier remark she'd made.
" Boston," she answered. She waved her hand toward the Perkinses' house as she continued. "I'm not about to draw any attention to myself in front of a crowd of strangers here because it would be foolhardy and perhaps even dangerous to do so. The men in Boston are more refined and know how to conduct themselves as gentlemen around ladies. There are rules, after all, and they abide by them. I can't say the same for the men who live out here because I don't know any of them."
"Most of the men out here are gentlemen, but there are a few who would think nothing of trying to drag you off with them. The way I see it though, being your escort means I'm responsible for your welfare, and I don't like the notion of getting into a fight just because you acted silly.
"Furthermore, we're about to eat, and I don't want to have to shoot anyone afterwards. It's bad for the digestion."
It was such an outrageous thing to say, she struggled to force herself not to laugh.
"Indigestion is the only reservation you have about shooting someone?"
"Just about," he told her.
"I don't believe you. You're teasing me, and a gentleman would never do such a thing."
"Now, Emily, we've been though this before. I know I mentioned I wasn't a gentleman. Fact is, you should be thankful I'm your escort."
She was so surprised by his matter-of-fact remark she didn't bother to push him away when he put his arms around her waist.
"Is that so? Why exactly should I be thankful?"
"Because if I weren't escorting you, I'd probably be one of the few who would drag you off with me."
She thought that was a lovely thing to say to her. He wasn't really serious. She shook her head at him to let him know she wasn't so gullible, then began to laugh. She stopped when she noticed he wasn't even smiling.
"We both know you aren't serious. Stop tormenting me. You wouldn't really…"
"You wouldn't have to flirt with me either."
"I wouldn't want to," she admitted. "Why are you holding on to me?"
"It makes it easier."
"Makes what easier?"
He slowly bent his head toward hers. "Kissing you."
He caught her whispered "Oh," as his mouth covered hers. His tongue swept inside to leisurely explore the sweet taste of her. She wrapped her arms around his neck and leaned into him. The last thought that fluttered through her mind was that she was going to insist that he let go of her just as soon as she finished kissing him back.
All that mattered now was Travis. She could feel his hard muscles under her fingertips and was a little overwhelmed by the sheer strength of him, yet he was being so incredibly gentle. She loved his masculine scent too. It did crazy things to her heart. She could feel it beating frantically now.
Lord, but he did know how to kiss.
He didn't understand why he suddenly felt the need to kiss her, but once the thought came into his mind, he couldn't get rid of it. He wasn't going to let passion get the upper hand, however, and as soon as the urge to become more aggressive entered his mind, he pulled away from her. Damn, she was seductive.
Emily had a bemused expression on her face, but quickly came to her senses.
"You really can't kiss me whenever the mood strikes you."
To prove her wrong, he kissed her again. She let out a little sigh of pleasure when he lifted his head again.
"That was the last kiss you'll get from me," she announced, groaning inside over the shiver in her voice. "I mean it. You mustn't ever kiss me again." She added a frown to let him know she meant what she said.
"You were a willing participant," he said. "Or wasn't that your tongue inside my mouth?"
She turned scarlet within a heartbeat. "I was being polite."
He burst out laughing. "You are a piece of work, Miss Emily Finnegan. If I were the marrying kind, I'd give good old Randolph a run for his money."
She knew something was wrong with the comment he'd just made, but it took her a full minute to figure out what it was.
"Clifford O'Toole," she said then. " Randolph is the man who married my sister."
"Ah, that's right. The man who jilted you."
"Must you use that word?"
"No need to get in a huff about it," he told her.
Even though they were a good distance away from the barn, Travis could hear the squeak of the door as it was being opened from the inside, and he instinctively moved closer to Emily so he could shove her behind his back if he needed to. He didn't think he was being overly cautious, for he had learned from past experience that a few of the folks who visited the Perkinses' establishment lived like animals up in the high country and were a crude and uncivilized group who didn't abide by any man's laws.
Travis relaxed his guard as soon as he saw the man strutting toward them. It was ornery Jack Hanrahan, whom everyone called One-Eyed Jack for obvious reasons. He was a fright to look at, with long straggly brown hair that hadn't been washed in years and a permanent scowl on his face that was mean enough to make a person think Jack was going to tear him apart. He was also downright vain about his godawful appearance and didn't bother to wear an eye patch. He thought a patch made him look sissified.
Every time Travis looked at Jack, he inwardly blanched. Other men weren't quite as restrained. They let Jack see their reaction, and that, according to old man Perkins, made Jack all the more vain. He got a kick out of terrorizing people.
Travis suddenly came up with one hell of a brilliant plan to make Emily come to her senses and realize how crazy her notions about men were.
"Maybe there is a way you can prove your point to me," he told her.
She tried to turn so she could see what Travis was staring at, but he put his hands on her shoulders and wouldn't let her move.
"Do you really want to show me how effective acting helpless can be around a man?"
"I would if I could. I've done a complete study on this topic, and I assure you I know what I'm talking about."
"Yeah, yeah. You studied it. How about proving it with the very next man you see?"
"You don't think I can do it, do you? Well, I can, Travis."
"You're that sure of yourself?"
"Yes, but only because I've watched it over and over again. My sister Barbara could turn all the men in a ballroom into a pack of fleas hopping around her, just like that," she said and snapped her fingers.
The comparison of Barbara to a dog made Travis laugh. "God help your husband if he ever does anything wrong. You sure do know how to hold a grudge."
"And just what does that mean?"
"Never mind." He gloated with satisfaction over what was going to be a well-deserved victory for all men everywhere. "Want to make it interesting and wager on the outcome?"
Although it wasn't proper for a well-bred lady to gamble, she was so certain she would win, she couldn't resist the temptation. Granted, she hadn't had much practice turning a man's head by acting helpless or coy, but she had observed the ladies traveling on the train who had blatantly flirted with several men, and she had also watched the master, Barbara, and therefore had complete confidence that she could pull it off.
"How much would you like to wager?"
"Shall we make it more interesting and wager five dollars?"
"Five dollars, it is," he agreed.
"I want you to know I wouldn't agree to this if I thought the gentleman I'm going to give my attention to would end up with hurt feelings, but what I'm about to do is harmless. Wouldn't you agree?"
The thought of Jack Hanrahan getting his feelings hurt made Travis choke on his laughter. "Yes, it's harmless. Have we got a bet, then?"
"As long as it isn't dangerous," she hastily qualified.
"I won't let it be dangerous."
"What are the rules?"
"No rules," he replied. "Just a time limit. Is ten minutes enough time to turn a man into a blithering simpleton, or do you need more time?"
"Ten minutes will be just fine. Are you sure you don't want to set some other rules? I don't want you to accuse me of not playing fair."
"No other rules," he insisted. "Just flirt with the very next man you see," he told her before he slowly turned her around.
He heard her indrawn breath and was a little surprised she didn't scream. She took a step back toward him.
"You want me to flirt with… him?"
"His name's Jack Hanrahan, and he was the next man you saw, wasn't he?"
Her shoulders were now pressed against his chest. He leaned down close to her ear and drawled out, "Did I happen to mention Jack's an avowed woman hater?"
She closed her eyes. "No, you did not. Is he dangerous?"
"He won't hurt you, or any other female, for that matter, but he sure won't be nice to you either. Folks say he has the personality of a rattlesnake, but I think that's a rotten thing to be saying about snakes. They're much sweeter. Do you want to admit defeat now, give me your five dollars, and be done with it?"
It was the combination of arrogance and laughter in his tone that swayed her. She straightened her shoulders and her resolve. Come hell or high water, she was going to get the man who looked like a barbarian to hang on her every word.
"He will be my finest challenge," she announced. "Stay here, Travis, and observe."
"Wait a minute. How will I know you've won?" he asked with another chuckle he couldn't contain, for the possibility of Jack being swayed by a woman was downright hilarious.
"Trust me. You'll know when I've won." She adjusted the folds of her skirt, straightened the collar on her blouse, and then took a deep, God-help-me breath.
Travis kept right on grinning as he watched her drag her feet toward her prey. He knew she had to be worried. Jack did look like a hungry bear who had just come out of his cave. He usually smelled like one too, and Travis couldn't help but think Emily was actually courageous to try to win him over. She was also being foolish and stubborn, of course, because she refused to admit that men were too intelligent to be taken in by a helpless woman.
"Be sure to do that thing with your eyes, Emily," he called out, pretending to be helpful.
She turned around. "What thing?"
"That twitching thing you did when we were in Pritchard. Jack will love that."
She wasn't amused. She whirled around and hurried toward the man she was determined to tame. By the time she reached him, her heart felt as though it was lodged in the back of her throat.
Whatever it was she was saying wasn't working. Jack kept right on scowling, God love him, and Travis could have sworn he heard him growl each time he shook his head at her.
Although ten full minutes hadn't passed, Travis decided to suggest to Emily that she give up. It really was hopeless, after all. He was just about to call out to her when One-Eyed Jack did the most vile, hideous thing. He smiled.