Excerpt from Holt's Gamble
"You don't mean to sleep in here tonight, do you?"
Holt shot Kierin an indulgent look and laughed. "Damn right I do." He struck a match against the wooden side of the wagon and lit the lantern that hung from the bow.
"But... but I left a stack of blankets for you outside. Jacob said... I thought... you'd sleep under the wagon."
"Under the wagon?" he echoed incredulously. "When there's a perfectly good bed in here? Now why would I want to do that?" He peeled off his shirt, grimacing as he eased it off his bandaged left shoulder.
The sight of his naked chest unnerved her. He couldn't sleep here. Or she wouldn't. How could she after what had happened between them tonight? The memory of his kiss still burned on her lips.
"Well, then, you could... share the tent with Jacob."
"Look, Princess, this is my wagon, my bed. My shoulder hurts and right now, I can barely see straight I'm so tired. So let's quit arguing and go to bed."
"Fine," she said, gathering up her quilt. "If you're taking the bed, I'll sleep under the wagon."
He stopped her. "No, you won't."
"What do you mean I—"
"I mean you're sleeping in here with me."
"I will not." She yanked the quilt from his grasp. To her chagrin, she heard the delicate stitchery tear.
"You will, by God, if you want the rest of this train to think we're husband and wife."
He was right. How would it look for a ‘newlywed’ couple to sleep apart? At the very least, it would raise unwanted questions, and at worst, she and Holt would become the objects of meddlesome gossip which could get her thrown right off the train. And then what? She really had no choice. No choice at all.
"You're right, of course," she admitted reluctantly. "But..."
"Right. Subject closed. Give me a hand with my boot, will you?" Perched on a crate, Holt proffered a booted foot for assistance.
Kierin stared at him as if he had just asked her to stand on her head. "You—you mean to disrobe?"
He lowered his foot. "That's what I usually do before I sleep, yes."
Of course she'd seen him nearly naked when he had been injured, but that—that had been different. He'd been unconscious, for heaven's sake. He was a far cry from that now.
He raised his foot again. "My boot?"
Kierin nodded halfheartedly and tugged at his boot. It seemed an intimate act—one, she imagined, performed unthinkingly between a husband and wife. Probably as commonplace as a man's fingers unlacing his wife's corset, or hers darning his socks.
But she and Holt weren't married. They were strangers.
"Could you get the other one? Please?"
Silently, she tugged his other boot off as well, setting it aside with its mate. When she had finished, Holt eased himself carefully down onto the narrow mattress, covering himself with the heavy woolen blanket there. A small wave of relief washed over her when she realized he was too tired to remove his pants.
Kierin stood with her arms tightly crossed in front of her, unsure of what to do next. The thought of stretching out next to him, in their bed, recalled memory of the kiss by the river and the unexpected sensations it had stirred inside her. What if he tried to kiss her again tonight? Another, equally disturbing thought struck her. What if he didn't?
"Kierin, come and lie down," he said, almost as if he had heard her innermost thoughts. "You have my word, I won't touch you." He paused, pulling aside the blanket in silent invitation. "Come on."
She'd have been a liar to deny the ridiculous twinge of disappointment she felt at his pledge, yet she teetered on the reckless edge of accepting his proposal. She could sit up all night, make a nest for herself in the corner of the wagon out of harm's reach. But the next logical question reared its ugly head: What about the hundred or more nights that would follow this one?