Fiery Passion by Margaret Tanner
Luke Campton entered the barn and his gaze homed in on Jo. His breath caught in his throat and his heart beat quickened. He could never remember feeling this way before. With her flaming hair rippling about her shoulders and her shining, vivid green eyes, she made a stunning picture. God, what a beautiful woman. Like liquid fire, heat surged through the whole of his body before pooling at his groin. He compressed his lips, fighting to get himself under control. He shouldn’t have come here. Shouldn’t come within a bull’s roar of Jo Saunders.
Damn Tim for defying his orders to stay away from the dance. He couldn’t trust the boy with pretty, gullible farm girls.
Maneuvering people with great energy, Jo made sure no girl remained a wallflower. Once their first bout of shyness abated, the young men joined in the dancing with gusto.
She was being swung around by a suntanned timber cutter when she overbalanced. He made a gallant attempt to catch her, but missed. Another pair of arms clamped liked steel talons around her, saving her from sprawling in an undignified heap on the floor. Glancing up into the face of her rescuer, Jo wished she hadn’t.
Blood rushed to her head, heat sizzled along her nerve endings.
“Good evening, Miss Saunders.”
“Good evening, Mr. Campton.” Even to her own ears, her reply sounded husky, and she fervently hoped he didn’t notice.
“Must be my turn to dance with you.”
Before she could refuse, he led her back out amongst the other dancers. For a big man he moved well, executing the various steps with surprising expertise. Yet he didn’t seem the type of man who would indulge in dancing.
His dark jacket and matching trousers appeared immaculate. A white silk cravat held in place by a ruby stud enhanced his piratical good looks.
“You’re beautiful.” His warm breath stirred the loose ringlets at the side her throat. “We make a striking couple.”
The subdued light thrown out from the lanterns softened the harsh planes of his face. The bitter twist to his mouth almost disappeared when he smiled; even the scar seemed less prominent. He was as dangerous as a rattlesnake. She knew this, yet like a moth drawn to a flame that would devour it, she couldn’t resist him, couldn’t stop her body from softening against him, becoming pliant in his arms.
He must have felt her softening, and his next words confirmed it.
“That's better, pretty Jo. With the right clothes and jewels, you could be the most beautiful woman in the colony. Let me buy them for you,” he offered in a silky soft voice.
The moisture in her mouth dried up, making it difficult to swallow. Was he proposing marriage? They hardly new each other and yet she was drawn to him, and instinctively knew he was drawn to her. From the moment they had first met there had been a strong attraction between them. She admired powerful men, but they had to have a tender side and she had not as yet seen this with Luke. Her senses reeled as she desperately fought to get her feelings under control. “Wh…what do you mean?”
“I want you, Jo. More than any other woman I’ve ever known.”
“Want! No thank you.” The magic spell shattered into a million pieces. His offer had reduced her to the status of a common whore.
Surprise registered on his face. “You’re the first woman in years to refuse me.”
Her spine stiffened, her head tilted at a proud angle. Wrenching free, she minced across the barn, leaving him standing in the middle of the floor. Several people snickered. She did not need to glance around to know he would be fuming at this public snub.
All pleasure from the evening disappeared now. Why did he have to come along to spoil things? Surely nothing worse could happen.
Tim Campton stepped in front of her.
“Dance, Miss Saunders?”
“No thank you.”
“I asked you to dance.” Intense color flooded his cheeks.
“I'm not deaf. I said no, thank you.”
“I'm Tim Campton.” Anger threaded his tone. Obviously this young man didn’t like having his advances rejected.
“All the more reason why I don't wish to dance with you.”
A dangerous mistake, as soon as the words were uttered she realized this. His strange, colorless eyes narrowed to slits and his face contorted. His evil laugh sent shivers down her spine.
“So be it.” He swung away and stalked off.
Nervous tension twanged through her body, her legs trembled and her hands felt sweaty. As she accepted an invitation to dance from another young man, she fought a desperate battle not to let him see her turmoil. As they returned to the floor, Luke had disappeared, but Tim started dancing with Amy Kirkman. For the next little while, she forgot the ugly incident. Thank goodness it would be supper time soon, dancing could certainly be fatiguing. I’ll be glad to have a rest and something to eat.
Everyone gathered around the front of the barn to listen to William explaining what they would do with the money they had raised. Jo glanced up just in time to see Amy, followed by Tim Campton, heading outside. A sudden feeling of dread surged through her. Quickly, but hoping not to attract attention, she sidled across the barn until she made it to the door.
In the few moments it took for her to become accustomed to the darkness, the pair had disappeared. Hurrying first in one direction, then the other, she found herself near the carriages. Instinctively she went over to their buggy and picked up Ian's rifle.
A short, sharp cry rent the air and she charged in its direction.
“Amy!” Fear raised her voice. “Amy!”
Another scream came from near the stables, and Jo ran. The night was not pitch black because of the star-filled sky and filtered light thrown out by the lanterns strung out along the wall of the barn. Horror temporarily froze her feet to the ground as she saw Amy desperately struggling with that monster Tim Campton.
With strength dredged from God alone knew where, she screamed out. “Let her go.”
Tim dragged Amy towards the stables. Jo rushed at him, hitting his back with the butt of Ian’s rifle.
“Bitch,” he snarled, letting Amy go as he swung towards Jo in a maddened frenzy. One hand contacted with the side of her neck, the other hand grabbed the front of her gown and the sound of the material ripping mingled with Amy’s screams. She tried to wrench herself free, but fell to the ground.
Rising groggily, she saw Tim holding the rifle. He advanced towards her. He was going to shoot her. No sound came out of her paralyzed throat. Like a maddened beast he lunged forwards, tripped over something, and in the split second it took before he hit the ground, a shot echoed on the still night air.
Luke arrived on the scene first, followed by Ian and the Kirkmans. Tim thrashed around in his death throes, blood spurting out everywhere. Ian helped her stand up. Someone threw a shawl or blanket about her shoulders. Luke knelt on the ground, cradling his dying brother's head, running his fingers across Tim’s forehead, brushing away a tendril of hair.
Tears were beyond Jo. Horror struck her dumb. Ian and Fiona tried to comfort her while the Kirkmans consoled Amy. The terrified girl’s hysterical screams became louder, reverberating through the darkness.
As Ian helped her away, Luke raised his head. His eyes stared straight into hers. He did not speak. The sheer savagery of his expression registered with her even though she was on the verge of collapse.