Excerpt from Simply Heaven
Steve angrily shoved his way back through the bushes.
Raven heard him but pretended not to, quickly buttoning her shirt. She was almost done when she felt his hands fasten on her shoulders to spin her about. Adrenaline surged as she prepared to defend herself, for this was the moment she had been waiting for—to make him want her beyond all reason and then humiliate him by overpowering him.
Now, however, as she stared up at him, caught in his burning gaze, she trembled not from fear that he could harm her physically but rather the betrayal of her own body. His eyes had captured hers to imprison them in a building fever of shared desire, and she was powerless to pull away.
Steve could see how unnerved she was and found himself wondering whether she had deliberately made him want her or if she actually was so naive as not to comprehend the effect she had upon him now that she no longer had to pretend to be anything other than what she was.
He could see her pulse beating in her throat, heard the quick, ragged breaths she drew, and saw how her breasts rose and fell as he held her tight against him. He fought against smiling to realize that she was shaken by his nearness, and the angry clutching of his fingers melted into a gentle caress.
"Damn you," he whispered huskily, hoarsely, as he drew her against him. "Damn you for making me do this, Raven." His mouth closed over hers.
The kiss ran passionate and deep, and, despite herself, Raven could not fight it. Her lips parted beneath his gentle assault, and she could only yield to the delicious wonder of his exploring tongue. His hands moved to her back, trailing up and down her curves, pressing her yet closer, until they seemed molded together. Through the haze of desire that had entrapped her, she was startled to feel his hardness against her. It was the clarity of desire she had sought to create, but in so doing she had unwittingly caused her own. And now she melted against him in submission as his touch fed the flames within, making them leap higher and higher till she was consumed, devoured, and ready to yield to his every wish.
His hands moved to her breasts, to cup and squeeze, and his hardness against her began to throb, ever so gently, and she thrilled to it and unconsciously leaned into it, but at the same time knew she had to pull away lest there be no turning back. It was madness, weakness, and she had prided herself on never being weak.
Her hands had been clutching his shoulders, and it was all she could do to move, for they seemed to have become leaden, refusing to budge.
With all her strength, she was finally able to place them against his chest and make ready to push him away.
But at that precise instant, Steve released her.
She blinked in stunned disbelief to see his mouth spread into a slow, taunting grin and his eyes no longer glazed with rapture but mocking, instead. "This isn't what you had in mind, is it, sweetheart? You weren't supposed to want it too, were you?"
"I... I don't know what you're talking about," she stammered and began backing away from him.
He made no move to stop her. "Sure you do. You've been teasing me so you could laugh in my face, only you didn't figure on catching the fever yourself."
As the distance between them widened, her bravado returned. "You're crazy. I didn't know you were going to spy on me when I took a bath, and I didn't enjoy what you were doing just now. You took me by surprise for a minute, that's all."
"You wanted me to see you bathing."
She shook her head wildly. "That's not true."
"And last night you wanted to make me crazy thinking about you lying there half naked, hoping I'd try to crawl in bed with you so you could scream rape, bring the Hannibals running, and tell them how I forced you to pretend we were married. That would have made me look like a prize fool in front of everybody. Only it didn't work, sweetheart, not there and not here, where you were probably hoping to catch me in a weak moment, bust my head with a rock, and take off. You're quite a little actress, you know that? You pretend to be so shy and innocent, but actually you're a scheming little witch."
Raven could have told him he was wrong. It wasn't to make him look foolish that she had tried to make him want her, it was to get back at him for all those nights she had lain awake wanting him. Only now it didn't matter, because desire had turned to loathing.
"You started all this. You came into my world, I didn't go to yours. And you forced me to come with you, and I told you when you did you'd be sorry. And you will.
"But hear this," she continued furiously. "I didn't want you just now. I could never want a stubborn oaf like you." She finished with a curt nod.
Steve cocked his head to one side. "Now is that a fact? Because I'd have sworn you wanted me just now as bad as I wanted you. Let's find out."
He took a step toward her, but Raven threw up her hands and made ready for combat. She was weak no longer, and anything she had felt for him had dissolved amid humiliation and indignity. "Don't come any closer," she warned.
Steve paused and bit down on his lower lip as it came to him what she had actually been planning. The little vixen probably knew every Indian trick there was and could fight like a warrior. She had no doubt hoped to get him in a vulnerable position and then beat the tar out of him before he knew what happened.
And suddenly it all seemed hilarious, and he threw back his head and laughed long and loud.
"You'll regret treating me this way," Raven warned.
"Well, if kissing me like you just did is a sample of revenge, I'll be looking forward to it. Meanwhile, I suggest a truce so we can get to where we're going." He walked away to leave her standing there glaring after him.
* * *
They endeavored to ignore each other. Steve was intent on traveling as fast as possible, while Raven focused on her surroundings.
She found the countryside beautiful and adequately populated, so there was no shortage of places to stop for food and rest. When meeting someone, and given the opportunity, she would ask questions, wanting to learn as much as possible about her new world but determined not to engage in conversation with Steve unless absolutely necessary.
She kept her distance, riding behind him most of the time. It was understood they couldn't stand each other, but still she was incited by the memories of how he had held her, kissed her. She had only to glance at his mouth to remember how delicious he had tasted, and at his hands to think how they had cupped her breasts and kindled sweet hot fires within her. And sometimes she would dare glance down at him and think of him pressed hard against her. Then she would chide herself and return to concentrating furiously on the scenery.
They passed plantations, and Raven marveled at the huge mansions, set far back, the roads leading to them lined with tremendous live oaks. As they passed one, curiosity got the best of her, and she asked, "What is that hanging from the tree limbs?"
He followed her gaze to the phantasmal cascades descending from the huge serpentine limbs of the oaks. "It's called moss. You'll see plenty of it from now on. It's all over the trees at Halcyon."
"Beautiful," she whispered, awed, "just beautiful."
Steve turned to look at her and saw the wonder on her face. It occurred to him then how strange she must feel after the life she had led, suddenly thrust into a different civilization. And with so much more yet to be seen and experienced, he knew she was either in for a delightful treat or the greatest despair she'd ever known. It remained to be seen just how her new life was going to affect her, but he sharply reminded himself it made no difference to him. He would soon be through with her. Eventually he would leave Halcyon, and never see her again, much less give a damn what happened to her. Still, despite the raging within, he could not dismiss the reality that he was drawn to her... which was all the more reason to get her out of his life as soon as possible.
Raven marveled at fields of cotton that stretched as far as the eye could see, with black people dressed in rags bent double as they crept between the rows, dragging huge picking sacks behind them. She knew they were slaves and thought it terrible but said nothing. It was a culture new to her, a way of life she did not understand and wanted no part of.
Now and then they would pass open carriages with finely dressed ladies out for an airing on a sweltering hot afternoon. Always the horses were driven by a black man dressed in a bright red coat. The ladies would look at Raven and Steve from the corners of their eyes but never turn their heads. Once, on impulse, Raven waved and called gaily, but the women pretended not to notice.
At the inns where they stopped to eat, Raven was introduced to new foods, which she found she liked, such as chicken that had been rolled in flour and fried; big green leaves called mustard, boiled with hunks of fat from a hog; potatoes mashed and fluffy and covered in a thick brown sauce called gravy; and big chunks of a baked crispy bread made from ground corn. Most of all, however, she liked the foods known as desserts, especially a light and fluffy cake covered in fat juicy strawberries and topped with a dollop of whipped cream, made from the risings of fresh milk.
So far, Raven had not felt anyone was looking down on her but then she realized Steve was not stopping at the fancy places, where the ladies she had seen riding in the elegant carriages would go to eat. The furnishings where they went were sparse, and they ate off chipped dishes and drank from glasses with tiny cracks. It was only when they passed a place where the customers dined outdoors beneath little umbrellas to shade the sun that Raven noted there were nicer restaurants.
"I suppose you don't take me to places like that because they won't let me in," she remarked. Then, not giving him time to either confirm nor deny, went on to sadly reminisce. "One time when Seth took me with him to San Antonio to get supplies, we passed a cafe that had a big chocolate cake in the window, I wanted a piece so bad. I had a little money in my pocket, so while Seth was busy in a store, I went back to the cafe and went inside, but some men threw me out. Seth got mad when he found out about it and said maybe I could finally understand why he tried to keep me away from white people."
"Were you dressed like an Indian?"
"Of course. My mother always dressed me in a pretty beaded dress made of nice soft deer hide. She wasn't ashamed of the Indian part of me. Neither was Seth."
"Well, here, wearing the kind of dress you've got on, folks will never suspect you're part Indian."
"Do you really think so?"
She looked at him with so much hope it made him feel guilty. She did have dark skin—cinnamon-colored skin. There would probably be a little prejudice, but something told him she had the spunk to cope with it, especially with Ralston money backing her. "You'll do fine," he said, turning away so he wouldn't have to see the doubt in her eyes, adding, "and the reason I haven't taken you to the fancy restaurants is because neither one of us is properly dressed for them right now."
She settled back and felt a little better about everything.
Raven's first sight of Mobile was the huge waterfront, with its docks and wharves and warehouses.
"See those?" Steve pointed to a row of brick warehouses. "They belong to your father. Ten of them. They're capable of storing over seventy thousand bales of cotton. He also owns presses that can compress a million bales in six months. He owns fourteen wharves that can be reached by a channel twenty-two feet deep.
"Over there"—he pointed again—"you can see some of his steamers, which operate between here and Montgomery. The trip takes two days, and the boat stops about two hundred times to load and unload passengers, grain, flour, meats, lumber, liquors, tobacco, cotton, and corn. Every possible sort of household item and luxury finds its way upriver to consumers."
"Is my father here somewhere?" Raven glanced around uneasily. She did not want to meet him unexpectedly; she wanted time to prepare herself.
"No. As I told you, he's sick at his plantation upriver. But even if he weren't, he wouldn't be here. I can't remember the last time Ned came to Mobile. He's got people to run things here, and he'd rather devote his time to the racking horses."
"Racking horses." Raven sniffed with disdain. "A horse is a horse, but he thinks he has found something special."
"When you see them, you might think so too," Steve remarked fondly. "Especially Starfire."
"Your father's horse. I told you about him, how no one has ever been able to ride him except your father. He's the most magnificent animal I've ever seen. And he doesn't throw him when somebody whistles," he added with a grin.
Raven ignored him. She was getting good at that, she realized, lifting her chin and turning her head in dismissal of his sarcasm. "He's still just a horse," she muttered under her breath. "I could probably ride him if I wanted to, which I don't."
The town lay at the head of an open bay and ran along the edge of the water north and south. The streets were long and broad, paved with oyster shells. The main avenue--Government Street--was lined with shops offering the latest goods from New York, London, and Paris.
Steve could see Raven was impressed, but not overly so. "Seems to me that a girl raised like you were would be excited about having all this handed to her."
She blinked uncertainly.
"All this," he repeated with an exasperated wave of his hand. "With Ned's money, you can buy anything you want."
"His money. Not mine."
It could be hers, Steve thought, if she'd quit being so stubborn, but he was tired of arguing, glad his job would soon be over.
He reined up and dismounted. Raven did the same. After securing their horses to a hitching post, he led the way to the door of a shop with a sign above that proclaimed BONHEUR BOUTIQUE. Motioning for Raven to precede him, he said, "I don't speak French, but I happen to know the sign means Happiness Shop. We're about to find out if that's true—thanks to your father's money."
Reluctantly, shyly, Raven stepped inside. The air was sweet with the smell of perfume, and as she glanced around she knew she had never been anywhere so elegant. She sank to her ankles in the thick purple rug and thought the walls, covered in a paper of pink and peach-colored roses, looked like a garden that stretched forever. There were tufted white velvet chairs and settees and ornate vases and flowers and more flowers.
Steve stood back and watched, pleased by her reaction. She would find out soon enough how money could open a lot of doors, though he personally had never worried about having any. As long as he had a roof over his head when it was raining, food in his belly when he was hungry, a good horse to take him where he wanted to go, and a firm-feeling woman when he had a yen, he needed nothing else—except, he was struck with a sharp pang to admit, there were times when he wished he had roots. Once Ned was gone, he knew that longing would only intensify.
A tiny silver bell above the door had tinkled when they entered, and a few seconds later the lace curtain at the back of the shop parted and a woman appeared. She wore a blue taffeta gown, and her dark hair was pulled back in a snood. Little round glasses perched on the end of her pointed nose. Her expression, at first, was pleasant, but, seeing Raven, her hand fluttered to her throat and she said, "I believe you are in the wrong shop."
"I don't think so." Steve gave her a lazy smile. Removing his hat, he walked over to settle on one of the pink velvet settees. "We're here to buy some happiness--like your sign says. And I'd like for you to fix this little lady up with a few nice gowns."
"Uh—" The woman hesitated to say it but finally blurted out, "Sir, this is a very expensive shop."
"Money is no object."
The woman looked as if she might faint.
Raven turned to Steve and said, "Let's go."
"Not till you get your clothes." He frowned at the woman. "Maybe we'd better talk to the owner."
Stiffly, she informed him, "I am the owner--Madame Bonet--and I assure you, sir, that I have nothing that the young"—she nearly choked on the word—"lady would be interested in."
"Well, you never can tell. Bring out what you've got, and we'll decide."
"But you don't understand, monsieur. We don't cater to"—she lowered her voice to a scornful whisper—"quadroons. I will appreciate your taking your business elsewhere."
"She's not a quadroon. And I don't think you know whose money we're spending here. Does the name Ned Ralston mean anything to you?"
"Of course," she said uneasily. "He owns this building."
"That's what I thought. Now will you please do as I ask, or would you like Mr. Ralston to come in so you can refuse him personally?"
She paled. "That won't be necessary. I'll be glad to help you." She fled back through the curtains.
Raven started to protest again, but Steve waved her to silence. "She'll break her neck serving you now, so relax."
"But what did she call me? What is a quadroon?"
"A woman of color. One quarter Negro. Your skin is darker than most, and she made a mistake. So you see?" He winked. "I told you no one would guess you're half Indian."
"Relax. I'm going to go have a beer or two, and when I come back I'm sure I won't even know who you are."
And when he returned a few hours later, he almost didn't.
Raven was standing in the middle of the pink and white room but easily outshone the magnificent surroundings. Her hair, washed and styled in ringlets by a coiffeur hastily summoned by Madame Bonet, shone like the raven's wing for which she was named. She was wearing a pardessus—a jacket—of green silk taffeta over a separate skirt. A satin ribbon of the same color adorned the jacket and the flounce of the skirt. The upper arms were embellished with a false cuff of net with fringe, and she was carrying a lace scarf and a parasol to match the fabric and lace edging of her costume.
"Do you like it, monsieur?" Madame Bonet rushed forward to dust away a tiny piece of lint from Raven's skirt. "The vivid green color is the latest from Paris and popular because of the recent invention of aniline dyes.
"Mademoiselle found several things she liked," she hastened to tell him. "There are a few alterations to be made, but I have two of my best girls working on them now."
"Have everything finished and delivered to the hotel by tonight and send the bill to Mr. Ralston. Here's a deposit." He threw down some bills.
Raven had already left the shop, wanting to enjoy the beautiful blue and gold day dressed in such a fine outfit.
He was about to follow after her when Madame Bonet touched his sleeve and said, with a faintly conspiring smile, "I am sorry I misunderstood when you first brought the lady in, monsieur. Mr., Ralston has good taste. He has the ability to see the rose among the thorns. Feel free to bring his mistresses to my shop anytime."
Steve tipped his hat and grinned. "Oh, she's not his mistress, she's his daughter. But I'll be glad to give him your message."
This time, Madame Bonet did swoon with shock.
And Steve just continued on his way.