Jamie could have stood there losing himself in her eyes forever. But someone pushed at his shoulder and someone else cleared their throat warningly, bringing him back to the present.
“Um, we should probably go somewhere,” he heard Julia say softly, beginning to tug at his arm and pull him away from the front of the crowd at the church steps.
“Where do you want to go?” he finally found his voice to ask.
Julia looked around, noting the whispered comments and all the eyes glued to their every move.
“Away from here,” she said. “Somewhere a little more…. private?” The suggestion ended with a questioning note.
“Do you mind riding behind me on Katelyn?” he asked, nodding toward where his paint was hitched outside the General Store.
“Have I ever minded ridin’ double with you, Jamie McCloud?” Julia asked smartly, raising one brow in imperious question, before beginning the short walk through the crowd toward the horse. Looking back, she noticed Jamie’s face had turned an interesting shade of red that rivaled her Ma’s rhubarb patch. “What?!?”
“Nothin’,” Jamie mumbled, looking away from her as he took the gaily decorated dinner basket and tied it to the back of the saddle. Mounting nimbly, he reached down a hand to Julia and quickly pulled her up onto the saddle in front of him.
“Where are we goin’?” Julia asked after they’d ridden a good fifteen minutes out of town. She didn’t notice that she’d lost her college class induced enunciation and begun dropping the endings of her words like she had while growing up. She hadn’t noticed, but Jamie had. He liked it. It made her seem so much more…. approachable.
But right now, her accent was the furthest thing from his mind. He was too busy wishing he’d chosen some place a little closer to town. There’d been a time when he’d ridden double with Julia without a second thought, both in the saddle in front of him and on the back of the saddle, behind the cantle. But he’d discovered, to his intense discomfort, that things were different as an adult. Every shift of the horse beneath him increased his awareness of how certain portions of their anatomies rubbed along together rather well. He’d like to explore that a bit more, but knew it was definitely out of… well, not reach, but certainly out of the question.
He breathed an intense sigh of relief when he saw a familiar stand of trees just over the next hillock.
“There,” he managed to say without sounding too breathless.
So distracted was he by his own physical reactions to their proximity, he never noticed the shiver his single word sent throughout her entire body as he breathed it right next to her ear. Or the way she seemed to melt into him as his chin rubbed across her cheek when he spoke. He completely missed the slight hitch in her breath.
“The… the ol’ swimmin’ hole?”
“Yep,” he muttered, taking the risk of urging Katelyn to a faster trot, hopping to end his torture sooner, then almost groaning in frustration as the added motion only made things worse.
“Why?” Julia nearly gasped, as his the movement of his arm wrapped around her, guiding the horse, almost stole her breath away with the tingling it induced.
Pulling the Katelyn to a stop at the edge of the copse of trees, Jamie dismounted in an almost indecent hurry. He paused a moment, leaning his forehead against the sun-warmed hide of his mount to capture his breath and get his thoughts back in some sort of working order.
“Um, dunno,” he finally said, straightening to his full height and beginning to lead Katelyn at a walk into the shade around the pond. “Guess it just seemed like the right place to go.”
“It always was yer favorite,” Julia murmured. “Though I wouldn’t’ve expected ya ta pick it in the middle of winter like this.”
Jamie just shrugged as he tied Katelyn safely to a low hanging branch, leaving just enough slack in the lead lines that she could safely graze without wandering off. Sucking in a deep, fortifying breath, he turned and held out his arms to Julia. She wordlessly slid off the side of the horse and into his grasp, landing with her feet practically on top of him. Just as she touched the ground, Katelyn shifted to the side, already seeking out a tastier bit of greenery, and pushed Julia forward so she was plastered against Jamie from shoulder to knee.
The two stood there, frozen in shock, for a long moment, simply trying to absorb the intense feelings suddenly flying through their brains and bodies, struggling to recapture the ability to simply breath that appeared to have run off with the sense of speech. But something, an eagle’s cry, a wolf’s distant yipping, Katelyn’s snorting, broke through the fog in Jamie’s brain and he abruptly jumped back a few inches, even as he reached out to steady Julia so she could stand on her own two feet.
“Um, you take the basket,” he mumbled, untying it and handing it to her. “I’ll, uh, set out the blanket.”
Refusing to meet her gaze, he untied the bedroll he always carried tied behind his saddle. It was a handy habit his mother had taught him years ago. No matter your plans, no matter expectations, you never knew when you might have to make camp somewhere out on the plains. Best to always have a bedroll handy. Just in case.
By the time he came over to join Julia under the shelter of a wide oak tree near the edge of the pond, Jamie was feeling almost normal again. He carefully spread out the oilcloth from the bedroll and Julia began to set out the food from her basket.
He watched in growing amazement as dish after dish was his favorite. There was a platter of still warm fried chicken, obviously made just that morning. It was accompanied by succotash, light as air drop biscuits, with plenty of butter and raspberry jam to slather on top. And for dessert, there was Julia’s world famous rhubarb pie.
“Where.. where’d you get fresh rhubarb this time of year?” he asked, flabbergasted.
Julia shrugged. “We made the pie filling last summer, when I was home on break, then canned it. Not exactly fresh, but taste is pretty much the same.” She paused then pulled out one more covered dish. “And there’s fresh, whipped cream to go with it.”
Jamie practically sank to his knees in reverence. Not only was this about the most mouth watering meal he’d smelled in ages, but it was all his favorites. Almost as if… No. His mind stuttered to a stop. No. It couldn’t be. Or had she? Had she really made all this hoping he’d still buy her basket, even after he’d been so rude to her? Raising his eyes, he looked in her direction, hoping to find the answer in her face. But she kept her head down, looking at the plate in her hands as she began dishing out the food. He shook his head roughly, as if to throw out the pesky thought that had no place inside much as one might shoo away an annoying fly.
Soon, he was fork deep in a plate of heaven. He chewed as slowly as he possibly could, trying to make each bite last as long as possible. Neither said much at first. Then they both reached for the dish of succotash at the same time, their fingers tangling up in each other and spilling the corn dish out onto the nearby grass.
“Oh,” Jamie mourned. “I’m sorry.”
“I bet you are,” Julia laughed, reaching over to pick up the now empty dish and set it back in the basket. “You remember the time you ate Ma’s entire platter of succotash? You were sick for a week after that. I didn’t think you’d ever want to eat it again. But there you were, the very next Sunday, begging for an extra large helpin’.”
Jamie laughed in remembered embarrassment. “Yeah. But yer Ma makes the second best succotash in the state.”
“Only the second best?” Julia asked, arching an eyebrow in challenge.
“Gotta say,” he suddenly muttered, not meeting her eyes as he gulped down the last bite of the scraps of succotash remaining on his plate, “you’ve done her one better.”
Julia blushed at the compliment. Noticing the rapidly emptying state of his plate, she reached back into the basket and began to dig around.
“Whatcha lookin’ fer?” he asked as she continued to dig and dig but didn’t come up with anything.
“The knife,” she muttered. “Ta cut the pie with. I know I put one in here this mornin’.”
“Here,” he said, digging a small handheld folded knife out of his pocket and holding it out to her. “Use this.”
“Thanks,” she smiled, reaching out to take the knife, being careful to only touch the handle away from his fingers, determined to keep her wits about her. “Why don’t you get out the whipped cream while I cut this?”
“Alright,” he agreed, reaching into the basket between them to fish out the glass jar filled with the stiffly whipped cream, lightly sweetened with a touch of sugar and, if he didn’t miss his guess, flavored with a hint of vanilla. Just the way he liked it.
Pulling the lid off, he held the jar up to his nose to inhale deeply, searching out that vanilla scent that would tell him the whipped cream was perfect. He jerked at the sudden peals of laughter coming from the young woman on the other side of the blanket. Looking up he met her amused eyes.
“You…. your….” she gasped, holding her sides tightly from laughing so hard. “Your nose,” she finally got out.
“What’s wrong with my nose?” he asked, bewildered, crossing his eyes trying to see down the tip of said proboscis. This only sent her into further paroxysms, laughing so hard tears began to slip from the corners of her eyes. “What!?!”
Unable to speak, she finally leaned forward and swiped one finger down his nose. Pulling back, she showed him the glob of whipped cream she’d cleared away with that swipe.
“Oh? You think that’s funny, do you?” he asked in a suddenly menacing tone, a glint of mischief gleaming in his deep blue eyes. “Then I bet you’ll find this hilarious!”
With no more warning, he dipped one finger into the jar of whipped cream, coming out with a large dollop which he promptly flicked straight at Julia’s face. It landed with a satisfying fwhomping sound on her cheek and began to slide toward her chin.
“Oooooh,” she practically growled, reaching up to wipe the sticky, sweet treat off her face with a handkerchief. “I’ll get you for that!” Scrambling to her feet, she reached for the nearest handy weapon she could find, the pile of biscuits only partially decimated by Jamie’s earlier hunger. Now they served handily as missiles in the war that had broken out between them.
And as easily as that, they slipped back into the carefree relationship of their childhood, chasing each other in mock anger, laughing at the silliest of things, swinging drastically from best of friends to worst of enemies and back within mere moments. Neither noticed the passage of time or the mess they were making. They were having too much fun to worry about inconsequential, adult concerns like that.
“Thought I might find you two out here.”
The sudden intrusion of Harry’s voice stopped them in mid-chase. Both turned to look toward Julia’s brother, seated on his horse, one arm resting casually on the saddlehorn, an amused smile on his face.
“What’d you two do?” he asked, indicating the mess that was left of Julia’s picnic lunch. “Try to feed all the ants one at a time? You do know it’s winter and they’re all in hibernation don’t ya?”
“Oh,” Julia gasped, looking down at herself. “My dress! Ma’s gonna kill me!”
“Won’t be the first time,” Harry said laconically, leaning back in the saddle to swing one leg up and over the saddlehorn for more comfort. “Nor the last I’d wager. Guess that fancy college degree of yours didn’t make ya as grown up as ya’d like all of us ta believe.”
“Oh, shush yer mouth, Harry Cross!”
“Here,” Jamie said, walking up with one hand held out. In it he dangled his handkerchief, freshly dipped in the water of the swimming hole. “Let me help ya clean up.”
Without further warning, he reached out to begin scrubbing at Julia’s face.
“Hey!” she protested, batting his hand away. “That’s cold.”
“Well, what’d ya expect?” Jamie asked, bewildered. “It’s December in Nebraska. Of course the creek water’s cold. You got another way of gettin’ all that goop off ya ‘fore we head back ta town?”
“Oh, give me that,” Julia acquiesced, reaching out to snatch the handkerchief from him. In a matter of moments she had her face, hair and dress cleaned as much as possible and handed the now thoroughly soiled hanky back to Jamie, who waved it off.
“No, you keep it,” he smiled teasingly. “Seems you get more use out of it than I do, anyways.”
“Seein’ as this was all yer fault,” she smiled sweetly, “I think you ought ta keep it.” And threw the hanky at him so hard it landed with a wet slopping sound in the middle of his chest.
Jamie moved to take revenge when a piercing whistle had him wincing and turning to look at Harry.
“The time?” Harry grinned. “Remember? We gotta get you two back ta town, for everyone starts talkin’. Now, mount up.”
Moments later, Jamie and Julia had everything packed up and loaded tied to the back of Katelyn’s saddle. Then, Jamie mounted quickly and kicked his foot free of the stirrup, forcing Julia to mount behind him this time, instead of in front.
He’d thought that would save him from suffering the same sort of torture on the ride back to town that he’d endured on the way out here. He’d been right. It wasn’t the same at all. This was a whole different level of hell. The feel of her warm body pressed tight against his back, curvy in all the right places, had him about ready to burst. And that was before her soft little hands slipped around his waist and settled on the saddlehorn. Right. In. Front. Of. Him.
By the time they got back to town, Jamie could barely breathe and was completely incapable of talking. Luckily, or maybe not so luckily, only time would tell, Harry noticed his condition and jumped in to explain their late return before anyone could ask questions.
“Sorry we’re late, Ma,” Harry said as they trotted up and Jamie lowered Julia to the ground, then handed her her basket. “We were down by the swimmin’ hole and lost track of the time.”
“All of you?” Dawn Star asked suspiciously. “I seem to remember those two riding off on their own.”
“Oh, Jamie and I had already decided ta meet down there, escape from all those silly school girls in town that are always chasin’ us,” Harry said, helping Julia up into the wagon onto the seat next to her mother and sister. “Plans just… changed.. a bit, that’s all.”
“Harrumph,” Dawn Star muttered, not really buying the explanation as she eyed Julia’s dirtied skirts and the still damp condition of Jamie’s shirt, pants and hair. Obviously not willing to take the conversation any further in front of curious eyes, she slapped the reins against the back of the horses, jerking the buckboard into motion and leaving all the riders scrambling to take their positions for the ride home.
Carl Wiggins stepped out from the alley by the Marshal’s office, a plate of cake in one hand, narrowed eyes glaring after the Crosses and McClouds as they left town.
That little tease had been one of the Cross girls? How dared she play him for a fool. Had to’ve been the one what went off ta college. What had been her name? Oh yeah, Julia.
Well, just ‘cause she’d managed ta fool all them snooty college brats inta thinkin’ she was a good, Christian, white girl didn’t mean she’d pulled the wool over his eyes. He’d seen the way she’d been hanging on the McCloud kid when they’d ridden into town. And the condition of their clothes had spoken loud and clear.
“You’ll get yers, Miss Hoity Toity,” Wiggins sneered. “Just you wait. And I’ll take care of young McCloud, too, don’tcha worry none ‘bout him.”