an erotic Western romance
by Victoria Dahl
Cooper’s Meadow, Colorado, 1875
Jessica wasn’t a whore.
Caleb Hightower knew that for a fact. She wasn’t a whore, she wasn’t running a whorehouse, and this wasn’t her place.
Yes, the house sat a mile past Black Rock Creek and was shaded by a cottonwood half-dead from a lightning strike just as he’d been told, but he still didn’t believe the story. She wasn’t a whore, and he wouldn’t find her here.
The paint on most of the south wall of the farmhouse was cracked and peeling, but a small patch of it shone white and new. A ladder leaned against the wall below the freshly painted square. No one stood on it. Lunchtime maybe. It was nearly noon.
As he rode his horse up the long dirt lane, Caleb adjusted his hat to better shade his eyes from the summer sun, trying to give himself a view through the dark windows of the house. There was no movement he could see. Not inside the house, or around the barn or the smaller outbuilding. A garden plot lay beyond the barn, and a small cornfield just past that.
A cow lowed, but no one moved to tend it. A lone chicken edged around the shed and pecked aimlessly in the dirt.
As he drew even with the sagging front porch of the house, he finally heard voices. A woman. And a man.
He dismounted slowly, realizing that he was doing everything slowly, delaying the moment. He tugged off his gloves and tied his horse to one of the graying rails of the porch, then adjusted his hat again. Slowly.
When his boot hit the first step with a dull thunk, the voices inside stopped. There was a long quiet, and Caleb forced himself to take the three steps to the screen door and knock. His rap met more silence. Then came the sound of sturdy shoes on wood. He caught movement past the screen.
It was a woman, but it wasn’t Jess. He knew Jess’s silhouette, and this woman was too curvy. More importantly, she was too short. Jessica Willoughby could’ve gained weight in the two years since he’d left town, but she couldn’t have lost height. Caleb blew a long breath past his teeth and felt his gut untangle for the first time in hours.
It wasn’t her.
“Help you?” the woman asked from the hallway, her tone unwelcoming for a lady who made coin on charm.
Caleb touched his hat, but his hand froze when she drew closer, wiping her fingers on a worn apron. The sun touched her then, and he saw her dark skin and oil-smoothed hair. This wasn’t the mistress of the house. It was the other whore he’d heard tell of in the saloon.
His hand fell numbly away. “May I speak to your mistress?”
Her head cocked. Just slightly. “She’s not home at the moment. If you’d care to—”
“Melisande?” a woman called from deeper in the house.
And then…then it was here. This moment he’d been trying to delay. It was her voice. Jessica’s.
He hadn’t heard it in so long, and his heart tried to leap with joy at the sound, but he slapped it down. No. This wasn’t right. This was wrong.
The first woman looked over her shoulder, and a shape moved out of the shadows of the hallway. Her head was down, her eyes on the towel she was folding, but Caleb would’ve recognized her even from behind. Her hair was a color of red he’d never seen until he’d met her. Dark and deep and looking as if it might be cool to the touch. And her shoulders, always straight and proud.
Her head rose, and Jessica’s forward motion stopped.
Even past the screen and the dimness, he could see the shock on her pale face. Shock and fear. She was quiet for a long moment, but she finally broke the silence. “What do you want?” she asked in that beautiful voice. He couldn’t see much of her eyes. He didn’t want to.
“You’re a whore,” he said, meaning to ask it, but spitting it out instead.
She stood straighter, those proud shoulders moving back. “This is private land.” Still the voice he knew, but icy now. Hard. “I’ll ask you to leave it. Good day.”
Caleb didn’t move. They stared at each other, though he could see nothing of her eyes except a pale glimmer.
“Bill,” she called out. A big shadow moved in the hallway behind her.
“Right,” Caleb muttered. She’d have muscle here. Any whore worth her salt would. “Right, then.”
He took a step back and removed his hat as he turned, meaning to wipe the sweat from his eyes before he got back on his horse for the long ride back to town, but Jessica suddenly gasped. Caleb froze, hand going to his gun at the alarm in that sound.
Her voice stilled his hand. “Caleb?”
The disbelief in that one word told him she hadn’t known him until now. He wasn’t sure if he regretted removing his hat or not. He could have let her take him for a stranger and walked away. She wouldn’t have even known he was here.
He glanced back, and she was shaking her head, but she stepped forward then, and it was her in the sunlight. God, it was her as he’d always known her, and in that second, everything else fell away. After all, he’d spent two years dreaming of that face and only the past few hours imagining that she had betrayed everything.
“Caleb,” she repeated, more certain this time. But the two years must have hit her in that moment too, and she glanced at the woman who now stood beside her. Jessica’s gaze darted between the two of them before settling on Caleb again. “It’s all right, Melisande." She turned around and called, "It’s fine, Bill.”
Melisande didn’t move. Neither did the dark shadow of Bill in the hall.
“It’s fine,” Jessica repeated, turning back to Caleb. “I know him.”
Melisande walked away. Her shadow joined the man’s, and they both disappeared into the back of the house. Jessica seemed frozen now, her skin fading to the color of snow.
Her blue eyes stood out like sky. And her mouth, so sweet and kissable. “You’re a whore,” Caleb repeated, almost ashamed at the words. Yet they were accurate. She was here. In this whorehouse. Just as he’d been told.
And she was changed. Thinner now. And her full mouth flatter, her jaw tight beneath it in a way it hadn't been two years before.
He heard his heart then, beating so hard he could feel the rush of blood in and out of it. In and out. Her eyes were still so blue, but maybe her mouth wasn’t sweet. Maybe it had always been a harlot’s mouth.
“I’m not.” She raised a trembling hand to her temple and laid it there. “It’s not true.”
Fury surged through him again, because he could feel the hope. He wanted to believe her. He wanted to just nod and say, “Of course,” and sweep her into his arms. Of course she wasn’t a whore. He’d been awful to ever consider it.
He ducked his head and put his hat on to hide his face. A man didn’t have to be polite to a prostitute, did he? “Then what are you doing here, Jessica?”
“This is my house.”
“I mean,” he growled, “Why is this your house, in the middle of nowhere, with these strangers, and why is the whole town calling you a whore?” When he raised his head he found she’d lost her calm. Her lips parted as if she meant to draw a breath, and her hand clenched in a fist as those blue eyes filled with tears.
Caleb felt like he was watching from far away, feeling the horror of what he’d said. To Jessica. She was the most refined woman he’d ever met. She always had been. He’d loved her from the day her father had brought her to town. She’d been twelve and so pale and ethereal and educated, and Caleb’s fifteen-year-old heart had surrendered without a second thought.
He would’ve suffered in silence his whole life, he would’ve never said a word, but for the awful truth that she’d liked him too. She’d smiled when he’d tried to avoid her. She’d blushed when he’d blushed. And on her fourteenth birthday, when he’d dared to kiss that tempting mouth, she’d sighed into him and kissed him back.
But mostly he hadn’t touched her, because she was too good for him, and he’d known it. Her father had been a doctor who’d moved west to open a retreat for wealthy consumptives. Caleb’s stepfather had been part of Dr. Willoughby's circle because he was a banker. But Caleb himself? He was the son of a rough marshal who’d read letters only well enough to puzzle out wanted posters and bounty notices.
Caleb looked like him. A face hewn from hard wood and a mouth that appeared cruel if it wasn’t smiling. And sometimes even if it was.
He had the look of an outlaw, and that had served him well in the past two years, but the contrast between his rough, sun-dark skin and the pale beauty of Jessica had always made him nervous. He’d idolized her. And she’d sold herself to strangers.
A tear spilled over and traced down her flawless cheek. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “Caleb…”
“So it’s true?” He willed her to say no. No. Never.
She turned her head and stared into the small parlor behind her before her gaze fell to her boots. They were rough boots, the leather scarred and faded. He’d never seen her wear the like.
She took a deep breath, her brow furrowing as if she were puzzled. But then she nodded and her eyes rose. She met his gaze head-on, her voice steady, though another tear spilled over her cheek. “Yes. It’s true.”
Oh, holy God. Her words sank into him like knives. No, there was more weight behind them. They were the blows of an ax. He felt the pain, and his soul split open and everything he’d carried inside for her spilled out, his blood and guts and all the soft, sweet feelings he’d never shown anyone, not even her.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
He couldn’t understand it. How had this happened? Her father had died only seven months before. Caleb hadn’t heard of it until weeks later, but she should have been fine. Her father had owned a pretty house in town, decorated with the finest things. She’d never even written to Caleb to mention her father’s death, much less to say that she might need money. Had she been too proud? Was it possible for a woman like her to be so proud she’d rather sell herself than ask for money?
She raised a hand as if she’d reach for him through the screen door, then seemed to think better of it. “I didn’t think you were coming back.”
“I said I’d come back, didn’t I?”
“I told you I’d come back as soon as I could.”
Her chin rose. “You said you’d return if. If you made money and owned land. If you could look my father in the eye and promise you could support me with your own hands. I asked you not to go. You went anyway.”
He squeezed his fist so hard his fingers went numb. “So this was a way to punish me?”
“No! I didn’t sell myself to punish a childhood sweetheart I thought was never coming back. It’s been two years. We were practically children when you left, and you never promised me anything.”
“Only because I didn’t want to tie you down to a man who might—”
“And so you didn’t,” she snapped. “And now…” She drew a breath and nodded. “I’m sorry I hurt you, and I’m glad you’re home safe, but that’s the end of the conversation. Have a good day.” She turned away.
Was this really the end of it for her? Just I’m sorry, good day? He’d worked his fingers to the bone for two years, saving nearly every cent so he could come home and ask for her hand, and now she was walking away from him? Walking deeper into this place where she took other men to her bed?
“I have coin,” he said.
She froze a few feet from the door. Went silent. She stood so still she must’ve been holding her breath. He could just make out the pale strip of bare neck between the collar of her gray dress and her upswept hair. He’d wanted to kiss her there for so long. On their wedding night, he’d thought. Moving slow and gentle so as not to frighten her.
His clenched hands shook.
“What?” she asked, still facing the hallway.
“I can pay.” The words came out so low he wasn’t sure she’d heard, but then she turned slightly. Enough that he could see the line of her straight nose and the way her chest rose with a deep breath. She stared into the parlor for a long moment rather than look back at him.
In the end, she said nothing. She only walked away, melting into the shadows of the house, her footsteps fading until a door closed and shut him off from even the sound of her.
Caleb knew there was nothing to do but leave, but he stood at her doorway for a dozen more heartbeats before he could make himself go.
* * *
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