In the kitchen, the men poured more of the home-made cider.
“Good batch,” said Jake, drinking deep.
“Mm,” Ash responded laconically. “Did you see?” he added with an edge of urgency.
Jake did not have to quiz Ash for his meaning. Unconscious or asleep, the girl’s features were pretty, though unremarkable, but when animated, her eyes danced and a dimple peeped near her full mouth. Her figure, just a bundle of arms and legs to him before, was tall and lithe, her bare feet arched and graceful. Seeing her awake, he had instantly comprehended Ash’s perplexing attraction to her. Jake also knew she would never seem merely pretty to him again.
“Yes, I saw. I was so confounded I forgot to ask her name.” His mouth quirked with humor. “You know she saw me naked.”
“She did?” Ash stared at him in astonishment.
“I was prancing about the kitchen when I heard her. I didn’t see her at first, but she was there the whole time, quiet as a mouse in the corner.” He was still rather disconcerted by the incident. It was not so much what she had seen, but if someone was going to watch him swinging his dick around, he wanted to be in control of how and when.
Ash started laughing. “Now I know why you flung my clothes at me and slammed the door in my face! I wonder why she said nothing, though.”
“Probably shock,” said Jake wryly. “She’s surely never seen a naked man before. It’s been a while since I had to worry about keeping my clothes on outside the bedroom. We’re both going to have to take care not to forget while she’s with us.”
Ash covered Jake’s hand with his own. “I want her with us, Hunter. I want her to stay.”
Jake hesitated a moment, looking into Ash’s eyes. “As in marriage?”
“Something like that.”
“I won’t let you go,” said Jake fiercely, feeling jealousy pinch at him. He turned his hand under Ash’s and squeezed it. “I won’t give you up.”
A tenderness appeared in his lover’s eyes, and he returned Jake’s pressure. “I don’t ever want you to, Hunter. Was thinking more along the lines of the three of us.”
Jake’s eyebrow went up. “She’s not like Claudette, or Addie, or any of the other girls we’ve bedded.”
“They’re all sweet, Hunter, but I never wanted more than to bed them. Never loved any of them.”
“You can’t love this girl. You barely know her—hell, you don’t even know her name!”
Ash shrugged. “She’s different. I know that much.” He glanced at Jake a little shyly. “When I saw her, I felt— Well, it was something akin to the first time I laid eyes on you.”
Jake leaned across the table, stroking Ash’s jaw with a light finger before kissing him. He sat back, contemplating his lover.
“That all sounds very fine, cowboy, but I’m not sure. She’s respectable.”
“I know. Might be hard to convince her to stay.” Ash stretched out in his chair, folding his hands behind his nape and grinning wickedly. “Reckon you and your smooth tongue are up to it.”
“You’d know just what my smooth tongue is capable of,” said Jake, demonstrating the agility of said organ in an obscene come-on that drew a laugh from Ash. “You can have your fill of it later, cowboy.”
“Promises, promises!” said Ash, blowing him a kiss across the table.
Jake returned it, then tilted his chair back, his foot resting on the stove for support. “I’ve been mulling over that accident.” He rocked the chair idly, watching Ash through narrowed eyes. “It occurred at that bend just before our trail. If it had been at the next bend, you’d not have seen them.”
“That’s true,” said Ash a trifle grimly. “Doubt anyone else would have happened on them either.”
“At their speed, they were still a day out from Corbett Falls by my reckoning. Even if they hadn’t crashed, they’d never have made it—listen to the storm howling out there; the main trail is sure to be as bad. They’d have likely frozen to death in this. I do believe that wagon was doomed.”
Ash pursed his lips thoughtfully. “That’s some guardian angel she’s got herself.”
Jake shrugged, his lips quirking up. “A guardian angel would have kept her in Amber Springs, not led her to us. And if the accident had happened farther back, you’d have returned her there. Perhaps it’s not entirely a matter of chance that she’s at Redcedars. Perhaps providence brought her here, and our fates are intertwined.” His eyelids drooped over his gleaming eyes, his expression sardonic.
“Will she take us, though? As you said, she’s respectable.”
“She must; it’s her destiny!” Jake’s eyes flashed with devilry. “Why else would she have been left to our mercy?”
Ash rolled his eyes. “Be serious for once,” he said, kicking playfully at Jake’s precariously balanced chair.
“Watch yourself, cowboy; you tempt me to retaliate!”
Ash raised a quizzical eyebrow. “You challenging me to a wrestling match?” he drawled.
“Only the kind you let me win,” Jake responded with a smirk. The smirk widened, and he raised an eyebrow. “She thinks we’re brothers. We don’t look much alike, and she knows we’ve different names. She won’t have thought that on her own—someone in Amber Springs has told her.”
Ash sat up straighter. “She’s been asking about us,” he said slowly.
“She’s been asking about you,” corrected Jake. “Before she came here, she’d not laid eyes on me.”
“She’s sure laid eyes on you now. Hell, a whole lot of you! No wonder she kept blushing—any woman would, getting an eyeful of your remarkably fine ass. No doubt it was preying on her mind.”
Jake leaned forward and rested his hand on Ash’s cheek. “Maybe it’s just because she hasn’t seen yours yet. You’ve got the finest ass in the territory.”
“Don’t be so sure.” A salacious grin quirked Ash’s mouth, and his eyes flicked down. “Can hardly blame her—your ass preys on my mind an awful lot.”
Jake tilted his chair back again, his eyes smoldering. “When we go to bed, you can give it a nice, close examination, cowboy. Just to make sure nothing’s changed since you went away.”
“Since yesterday?” Ash’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “Might be a good notion. A thorough inspection will set both our minds at ease.”
In the five years since they had come to Oregon, they had seldom been apart for longer than a day, and Jake had certainly missed having his lover beside him last night. Although he had only recently come, he felt his cock harden again at the thought of being at the mercy of Ash’s attentions. With a very dirty grin on his face, he was contemplating what form those attentions would take when he heard a step on the threshold. He glanced over his shoulder, realizing their guest had returned, and he and Ash both jumped to their feet.
Dressed in Ash’s juvenile clothes, she emerged shyly into the kitchen. Jake heard Ash make a noise in his chest as they both took in her appearance. His eyes traveled from her sock-encased feet and up her long legs clad in the dark wool cloth, to her waist, snugly belted, and then to the swell of her breasts outlined in the soft linen shirt. Her face, clean and shining, showed some bruising and a scratch or two, but the fine bone structure made such imperfections negligible. She had lost most of her hairpins; her damp hair was plaited into two thick braids that fell down her back, secured at the ends with ribbons from her chemise.
Jake took her arm and led her to the table, seating her to his right. Ash served up a dish of stew and placed it in front of her, taking his seat opposite her. She muttered a shy thanks and bent her head to her plate, falling to with a will.
Both men watched her in silence, and although she was not conscious of their regard, she ate daintily despite her haste. She had taken the edge off her appetite before Jake spoke.
“Forgive me for interrupting your meal, ma’am.”
The lady looked up in surprise. She swallowed the food in her mouth and put down her fork and knife. “I am sorry, Mr. Huntington! I was so hungry I forgot my manners completely. Please forgive me!”
“It’s good to see you eating with such a healthy appetite, but Ash and I, we’re getting mighty tired of calling you ma’am. But as you haven’t yet told us your name, we don’t know what else to call you.” His eyes twinkled.
“Gracious, I cannot believe I forgot to introduce myself! I am Evelyn Lockhart, lately of Oregon City.”
“Pleased to meet you, Miss Lockhart,” said Jake.
“It is Miss, ain’t it?” asked Ash.
“Oh yes,” she replied.
Ash smiled, and Miss Lockhart smiled back before returning her attention to her meal. Once or twice her gaze flicked up to Jake, who was pretending to be engrossed in contemplating his glass of cider. Finishing off the last few bites of the stew, she sat back.
“Are the Brennans staying elsewhere? Have they left me behind? Or are they, too, trapped by this weather? I wonder that they did not tell you my name. Or give you all my luggage.”
Jake and Ash looked at each other and then back at their guest. Fear was growing in her face, and Jake was sad they were going to have to break the bad news to her. Better to get it over with, he thought. He glanced at Ash, wondering if he should tell her or let Ash do so. Ash shook his head and turned to her, taking a deep breath.
“No easy way to say it, Miss Lockhart. It wasn’t just you that had an accident, it was the whole wagon. You were the only one to survive.”
Miss Lockhart looked stunned; then she bowed her head, her hands clutching her plate. After a moment, she raised her head, blinking back tears. She looked at Ash and swallowed.
“Did you—did you bring them back here?”
Ash shook his head. “I buried them near the road. The place is marked.”
Miss Lockhart nodded and bowed her head again. “I think I should retire—” She broke off, her voice suspended by grief, her hand rising to her eyes.
Without thinking, Jake went to her, folding her in an embrace. She was shaking as the sobs built up, and pressed her face into the hollow of his shoulder. He bent his head over hers, laying his lips on her sweet-scented hair, rocking her in his arms.
“It’s okay,” Jake spoke soft and soothingly into the delicate ear close to his mouth. “I’ve got you.” He stroked the back of her head consolingly as she began to weep helplessly.
He looked at Ash over the top of her head, and Ash gestured upward with his thumb. He nodded. Ash rose and went upstairs.
Presently, Miss Lockhart’s sobs subsided, and she stilled, although her hands still clutched his shirt in a fierce grasp. Her breathing calmed, and she began to relax in his arms. His face still pressed into her hair, Jake inhaled, smelling their own soap on her and a unique, fresh scent that was hers alone. Her hands uncurled from their tight grip to rest lightly on his chest, and through his shirt he could feel the heat of her palm.
“Time for bed, I think.” Jake swung her up into his arms and carried her to the stairs. She was light and soft in his arms, like an armful of gossamer flowers. He quelled the impulse to kiss her, instead tucking her head under his chin.
“I can walk.” Miss Lockhart sighed, nuzzling in and clinging to his shirt again.
“Sure you can,” he said with a laugh as he climbed the stairs. She subsided into his arms and let him carry her without further protest.