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By Sandra Brown
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Table of Contents
A Preview of Friction
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The man lunged to his feet, clumsily drew his pistol, cocked it, and aimed.
His stocky thighs caught the edge of the table, jarring it and rocking the glasses full of liquor that stood on it. One sloshed over. A cigar rolled from an ashtray and burned a small hole in the green felt top.
Jake Langston sighed tiredly. He had come in for a game or two of stimulating poker, a glass or two of stinging whiskey, perhaps a satisfying tumble or two in one of the beds upstairs—all to fill the hours until his train pulled out.
Now here he was involved in an argument over a hand of poker with a sodbuster named Kermit something or other, who he hoped had more talent handling a plow than he had a gun.
"You calling me a cheater?" the farmer demanded. Unaccustomed to drinking any more than an occasional Saturday night beer, he was none too sober and, though his feet were well planted, he swayed like a sailor on a turbulent sea. His beefy face was perspiring and flushed. The pistol pointed directly at Jake's chest was wavering in an unsteady hand.
"I only said I'd like to see all those aces you've got in your sleeve at one time rather than having them pop up every other hand." With infuriating nonchalance Jake reached for the tumbler of whiskey near his right hand, his gun hand, and took a leisurely sip.
The farmer's glance nervously bounced around the barroom, suddenly aware of the spectacle he was making of himself. No one else in the cavernous room was moving. The music had ceased at the first sign of trouble. The others at the poker table had carefully ebbed away like the ripples from a stone thrown into a still lake.
The man was trying his best to appear threatening. "You're a liar. I wasn't cheating. Draw on me."
It all happened so quickly that, later, only those standing closest could testify as to what had actually taken place. In one lithe move Jake came out of his chair, drew his gun, swept his other hand wide to deflect the farmer's arm and sent the pistol ineffectually clattering to the floor.
Kermit's Adam's apple elongated to accommodate a knot of stark terror. He looked into eyes as cold and brittle as icicles that cling to the eaves after a frigid, wet January norther. They were much more frightening than the gaping barrel of the pistol pointed at the end of his nose. He faced a body that was leaner than his by forty pounds, but menacing with its taut control.
"Pick up half the winnings you've stockpiled there. I figure you won that much fairly."
The farmer's hands fumbled with the coins and bills as he stuffed them into his pants pockets. He exuded the frenzy of a fox prepared to gnaw off his foot to escape a trap.
"Now pick up your gun real easy-like and get out of here."
Kermit obeyed. Only a miracle prevented the pistol from firing in his trembling hands as he let down the hammer and reholstered it.
"And I advise you not to come back until you learn to cheat without getting caught."
The farmer was humiliated, but vastly relieved that his heart was still beating, that he wasn't bleeding profusely from a gunshot wound, and that he wasn't going home penniless to his harping wife. He left, vowing to himself that he would never return.
The piano player resumed his jumping, jangling tune. Other patrons of the gambling hall drifted back to their tables, shaking their heads in amusement. Smokes abandoned in ashtrays were relit. The bartender immediately began to refill glasses.
"Pardon the interruption," Jake said congenially to the other players as he scooped his own pile of winnings off the table. "Divide the rest," he said of the money the farmer had wisely left on the table.
"You could've killed him for pullin' a gun on you like that."
"Damn sure could have. We'd've backed you."
Jake shrugged, turned away, and left them talking. Taking a slim cheroot out of his shirt pocket, he bit off the end and spat it on the floor. Striking a match with his thumbnail, he lit the cigar as he weaved his way through the tables toward the oak bar that extended the width of the room. According to rumor it had been shipped piece by piece from St. Louis to Fort Worth and painstakingly assembled. It was ornately carved, bedecked with mirrors, and lined with bottles and glasses that were kept highly polished. The proprietress wouldn't tolerate dust.
Brass spittoons were strategically placed along the brass rail of the bar. Spitting on the floor was not allowed in Priscilla Watkin's Garden of Eden. Hand-lettered signs posted along the bar at six-foot intervals said so.
Jake smiled. That floor, waxed to a high gloss, was now desecrated by the tip of his cigar. He also took a perverse pleasure in making sure the spurs on his boots scarred the surface the madam of the establishment took such pride in.
A grin tugged at the corners of his thin, wide lips. Priscilla. Just as his mind conjured up her name, he spotted her poised on the bottom step of the curving staircase, looking as resplendent as the Queen of Sheba. Clad in bright purple satin with black lace trim, she would catch any man's eye. Always had. When Jake had first met her almost twenty years ago, she had worn well-laundered calico. But she had turned heads even in that.
Her ash-blond hair was piled on the top of her head and decorated with a single purple ostrich plume that curled down around her cheek and flirted with a dangling jet earring. She held her head at a regal tilt.
Indeed, this whorehouse was her domain. She ruled it like a despot. If customers or employees didn't like the way she managed things, they were summarily dismissed and escorted off the premises. But everybody in Texas knew that the Garden of Eden in Fort Worth was in this year of 1890 the best whorehouse in the state.
Priscilla extended a slipper-shod foot and stepped off the bottom stair. Proudly, leaving behind her a wake of musky scent imported from Paris, she made her way to the bar just as Jake was lifting a glass of whiskey to his mouth.
"You just cost me a customer, Mr. Langston."
Jake didn't even turn his head, but nodded toward the bartender to pour him another shot. "I think you can afford to lose one or two, Pris."
It irritated the hell out of her for him to call her that. He took as much pleasure doing it as he did in scuffing the floor of her saloon. Only an old friend like Jake could get by with either one.
Were they friends? Or enemies? She was never quite sure.
"Why is it that things can go fine for months and the minute you come in there's trouble?"
"The sodbuster drew a gun on me. What did you expect me to do? Turn the other cheek?"
"You provoked him."
"He was cheating."
"I don't need any more trouble. The sheriff's been here twice already this week."
"Business or pleasure?"
"I'm serious, Jake. The town is up in arms again, wanting to shut me down. Every time there's trouble—"
"All right, I'm sorry."
She lifted her chin and laughed. "I doubt that. You either stir up trouble at the gaming tables or cause a ruckus among my girls."
"They fight over you and you damn well know it," she snapped.
He turned to look at her then, grinning unabashedly. "Do they? Well, I'll be damned."
She assessed his good looks and that appealing arrogance he had acquired over the years. No longer a gauche boy, this was a man, a man both men and women had to reckon with. She tapped him on the chest with her feather fan. "You're bad for business."
Leaning down he whispered confidentially, "Then how come you're always so glad to see me?"
Priscilla's mouth tensed with vexation, but she succumbed to his ingratiating smile. "I've got better whiskey than that in my office." She laid a hand on his sleeve. "Come on."
Heads turned as the two crossed the room. There wasn't a man alive who could be impervious to Priscilla. She was attractive in a bawdy, lusty sort of way, and tales of what she was capable of doing to a man had made her a living legend. Even weighed against a man's bent to exaggerate when recounting his sexual exploits, stories about Priscilla Watkins were too widespread not to carry some credibility. Men didn't want their wives to have that sultry, brazen glint in their eyes, but they sure wanted their whores to.
Most of their desires were borne not of memories, but of curiosity and fantasy. Few had experienced those raunchy sessions with Priscilla firsthand. She was choosy. Even if they could afford the premium price she demanded, most wouldn't be selected to enter that inner chamber behind the door kept perpetually locked. It guarded enthralling secrets. Every man in the room envied Jake Langston at that moment.
But if the men looked at him jealously, the women looked at him with longing. The whores scattered around the room entertaining the early evening crowd were working women. They knew the value of a dollar. They had to be practical. Their time was money. So they practiced their seductive arts on their customers, but every one of them would have traded the few dollars she would make for a free hour alone with the cowboy Jake Langston.
He was slim-hipped and lanky, but moved with the feline grace of a mountain cat and was just as tawny. Tight pants fitted taut buttocks and long thighs like a second skin. The gun belt strapped low around his hips only emphasized his manliness. Men respected his talent with his gun. To women, his reputation with it only heightened the excitement of being around him. It added an element of danger that few respectable women would confess to finding stimulating.
His shoulders were broad, as was his chest, but not so much that it detracted from his overall leanness. He didn't merely walk. He sauntered. The girls who had had the good fortune to entertain him in their rooms swore that he was as bold about everything as he was with that swaggering walk and that the rolling action of his hips wasn't a talent limited to walking.
Priscilla drew a key from her low-dipping bodice and unlocked the door to her private quarters. As soon as she entered, she dropped her fan on a fashionably spindly chair and crossed to a small table to pour Jake a drink from a heavy crystal decanter. He closed the door behind them with a definite click. Priscilla's eyes swung up to meet his. She resented the accelerated beat of her heart.
Would tonight be the night?
The parlor could have belonged in any gracious hostess's house, except for the nude of Priscilla painted by a customer who had paid his bill by doing the portrait. He had no doubt been her lover, having captured her on canvas in a pose of indolent satiation. Unapologetically decadent, the portrait in its gilded frame graced the wall behind the satin-covered sofa, which was piled with pillows edged in silk fringe. The draperies on the windows were moiré, but with no more shirring than those found in most fine houses of the period. Tables were draped with doilies as fine as spiderwebs. They could have been crocheted by anyone's grandmother.
The oil lamps had large round globes with flowers painted on them. Some dripped prisms that tinkled softly when a whiff of air caught them. A thick carpet covered most of the floor. There was a chest-high vase of peacock feathers standing in one corner. A seventeenth-century shepherdess, bare-breasted and saucy, was keeping an ardently admiring shepherd in perpetual distress on its china surface.
Jake surveyed the room slowly. He had been in here many times. It never ceased to fascinate him. Priscilla had moved up in the world from being the rebellious daughter of a dictatorial mother and a cowed father. Jake—then Bubba to everyone—had taken her in fallow fields and on muddy creekbeds. But when it came right down to it, the place didn't make any difference. A whore was a whore no matter where she practiced her trade.
Priscilla, unaware of his unflattering thoughts, went to him and handed him the whiskey. She plucked the cheroot from between his lips, carried it to her own and took a long draw, letting the smoke curl through her lungs before exhaling it in a long, slow stream. "Thanks. I don't let my girls smoke so I can't be a bad influence. Let's go into the bedroom. I have to change for the evening crowd."
He followed her into the next room. It was lacy, overtly feminine, and strangely unsuited to her. She was too hard a woman to be ensconced in this frilly, soft room, but Jake guessed that was part of the fantasy she provided for her customers.
"Help me, please, Jake." She offered him her back. He stuck the cheroot back in his mouth, clamping it with straight white teeth and squinting against the smoke. He set his drink aside. Deftly he unhooked the row of fasteners down her back. When he was done, she glanced over her bare shoulder, said a husky "Thank you, darling," and moved away.
Jake grinned as he flopped down on the brocaded chaise. He lifted his feet on it, disregarding the spurs, not to mention the caked mud, on his boots.
"What have you been up to lately?" Priscilla shimmied out of the low-cut dress with a move too effortless not to be rehearsed.
Jake blew a perfect smoke ring into the air and reached for his whiskey. "Working up in the Panhandle, stringing a fence from there to kingdom come."
Her brow arched eloquently as she kicked out of the purple slippers. She didn't bother to pick up after herself. Somehow dropping clothes where she took them off added to the wantonness of the act. Men preferred their women not to be too fussy about tidiness, especially when they were coming to bed. Such negligence made this paid sex seem more spontaneous. With mild derision she asked, "You've become a pliers man?"
That was a name given to cowboys who, after the decline of the long drives, found themselves hard pressed to find jobs. They often had to string the very barbed-wire fences that had closed the open ranges and put them out of work.
"Well, I've gotten accustomed to eating, things like that," Jake said easily. His eyes hadn't missed one seductive move she made.
Her corset was tightly laced. It pushed her bosom up and out until the sheer chemise beneath could barely contain it. She had always been well endowed. Jake remembered those large, firm breasts. Sweeping her petticoats aside, she sat down on a small round stool in front of a vanity table. It had mirrors hinged at the sides of the one she faced, so that she could adjust them and study herself from all angles. With a lamb's-wool puff, she dabbed powder on her neck, shoulders, and breasts.
"Are you on vacation?"
A low laugh rumbled out of Jake's chest. "Nope. I just got sick of seeing nothing but tumbleweeds and dust. I quit."
"What do you plan to do now?"
What did he plan to do now? Drift until a job turned up. The same thing he'd been doing for most of his adult life. He could earn some prize money in rodeos, enough to keep him and his horse alive, enough to enter a poker game now and then, enough to enjoy the recreation provided in places like Priscilla's Garden of Eden.
"How many drives did you make, Jake? I lost count of the times you came back to Fort Worth after going north."
"So did I. I went to Kansas City on several trips. Went all the way to Colorado once. Didn't like it. Pretty country, but too damn cold." He crossed his arms behind his head, enjoying the spectacle of her rouging her nipples. Her finger carried dollops of the colored salve from the tiny glass jar on the vanity to her breasts. She applied it soothingly, almost lovingly. "What about you, Priscilla? How long has it been that you've owned this place?"
"What did it cost you?"
Hours on my back, she wanted to say. Hours with sweating pudgy farmers who complained that their wives didn't want any more children and denied them their rights as husbands, and rough cowboys who brought the stink of the stockyards in with them.
She had worked in Jefferson first, the last stopping-off place on the frontier. But when the railroad bypassed that town, destroying it commercially, Priscilla had come to Fort Worth, where those tracks converged from all over the state. It was a raucous town full of cowboys who couldn't wait to spend the money they had made on the cattle drives.
Priscilla had seen to it that her reputation flourished. She gave her customers their money's worth in those days. Sometimes more than they paid for. She was popular. She saved her money. When she had enough, she went to one of her loyal customers, a banker, and had him secretly under-write her purchase of the saloon. They bought out the former madam and converted it into a high-class pleasure palace that attracted not only the rowdy cowboys but the cattlemen who hired them. No expense was spared and the investment had been a wise one. She paid off the banker in two years. Except for the outrage of the "decent" community, her establishment, located in the area of town known as Hell's Half Acre, had given Priscilla little to worry about financially.
"If you need a job, you can always have one here dealing cards or acting as bouncer."
Jake laughed and set his empty glass on the table beside the chaise. "No thanks, Priscilla. I'm a cowboy. I don't like walls around me. Besides, according to you, if I were here constantly, your girls would stay all aflutter. We can't have that, can we?" he taunted.
Priscilla frowned as she pulled on a black satin dress. The purple plume in her hair had been replaced by a shiny black one anchored by a rhinestone clip. Jake Langston had gotten too big for his britches. She smothered a smile as she "corrected" her thought. Jake Langston had always been too big for his britches. He certainly wasn't deficient when it came to manly endowments.
She eyed him covertly as she pulled on the long black lace gloves that encased her fingers and forearms. He had matured to become too damned attractive. No wonder he was conceited. He had been towheaded in his youth. Now his hair had ripened, but marginally. Those white-blond strands were like a beacon, drawing women to him like moths to a lantern's flame.
His skin had been tanned like leather. Long hours of exposure had turned it a coppery hue that intensified the blue of his eyes. Fine lines were etched around his eyes and down both corners of his mouth. But rather than detracting from his appearance, that weather erosion added a new dimension to his attractiveness that hadn't been there in his youth.
He was rugged. Tough. Latently dangerous. He seemed to have a secret lurking behind his lazy smile. The smile hinted that the secret was naughty and that he was dying to share it. And his cockiness made him a challenge no woman could resist.
Priscilla remembered the boy she had sexually initiated. Their tumbles had been hot and frequent, fierce and hard. What would they be like now? For years he had wanted to know.
"Will you be staying in Fort Worth for a while?"
"I'm on my way to east Texas tonight. I'm taking a late train. Remember the Colemans? Their daughter is getting married tomorrow."
"Coleman? The one from the wagon train? Ross, wasn't it?" She knew well whom he was speaking about, but she wanted to provoke him as much as he always wanted to provoke her. It was a game they played every time they saw each other. "And what was that woman's name? The one he charitably married."
"Lydia," he said tightly.
"Oh, yes, Lydia. She didn't have a last name, did she? I always wondered what she was hiding." Taking the stopper out of a crystal perfume bottle, she dabbed it behind her ears, on her neck, her wrists, her breasts. "I hear they've done quite well for themselves with that horse ranch."
"They have. My mother lives on their land. So does my kid brother, Micah."
"That little toddler?"
"He's grown now. One of the best horsemen I've ever seen."
"What happened to Mr. Coleman's baby? The one Lydia wet-nursed before they got married."
Jake pondered a moment, looking for rancor from Priscilla. Finally he answered. "Lee. He and Micah are two of a kind. Always raising hell."
Priscilla contemplated her reflection in the mirror and patted her hair. "And they have a daughter old enough to get married?"
Jake smiled fondly. "Barely. Last time I saw her, she was still in braids, chasing Lee and Micah, begging to go along to round up a rogue stallion."
"A tomboy?" Priscilla asked, pleased. She remembered how Jake used to gaze at Lydia Coleman with calf eyes. All the men on the wagon train had been attracted to her, despite their wives' reluctance to accept her at first. If Lydia hadn't married Ross Coleman, Priscilla would have been insanely jealous of her. She liked to think of Lydia's daughter as an awkward, gangling girl, or a stringy tomboy.
"I guess if she's getting married, she must have changed some since I last saw her."
Priscilla picked up her fan and twirled around in front of him, preening. "Well?"
The bodice of the dress was tightly nipped in at her waist. The neckline was wide and low, barely covering her breasts with a lace as fine as that of her gloves. Its pattern didn't conceal the rouged nipples beneath. In front, the skirt rode the vamp of her black satin slippers and flowed into a short train in back. A modern bustle contributed to the hourglass shape of her figure.
Cynical blue eyes raked her insolently. "Very nice, but then I always did say you were the prettiest whore I ever knew." He watched the temper flare in her gray eyes. Laughing softly, he reached for her hand and yanked her down onto the chaise with him. Her fan flew out of her hand and landed softly on the floor. The plume in her hair was knocked awry, but Priscilla didn't object as Jake rolled her beneath him.
"You've been strutting your stuff for me all night, haven't you, Pris? Hm? Well, I reckon it's time I gave you what you've been asking for."
He slanted his mouth hard over hers.
Hungrily her lips opened for the intrusion of his tongue. Her girls hadn't exaggerated. He knew what he was doing. He summoned every feeling place in her body with that kiss and they all responded. His body was hard and rangy. She arched up against him as her fingers tangled in the thick blond hair at his nape.
With a practiced movement his hand found its way beneath her skirts and onto her thigh just above her lacy garter. He stroked the warm, quivering flesh. She raised her knee.
'Hm, yes, Jake, Jake," she whispered as her mouth moved over his.
He wedged his free hand between their bodies. She thought he was adjusting his clothing and looked up at him stupidly when he dangled a pocket watch in front of his eyes and checked the time. "Sorry, Pris." He made an insincere clucking sound with his mouth. "I've got a train to catch."
Furious, she threw him off her. "You bastard!"
Laughing, Jake rolled off the chaise. "Is that any way to talk to an old friend?"
Priscilla did something she rarely did. She lost her temper. "You stupid hillbilly! You dumb lout! Do you really think I wanted to make love to you?"
"Yeah, I really think you did." He winked at her and headed for the parlor. "Sorry to disappoint you."
"Aren't I good enough for you anymore?"
He spun around. "You're good enough. Too good. The best. That's why I don't want you. Because you're the best whore around."
"You sleep with whores all the time. That's all you ever sleep with."
"But if I don't know them, I can pretend it's something else. I can pretend that I'm the only one who's been there. You've been a whore since I've known you. Dozens of men have been in your bed. It kinda takes the romance out of it for me."
Her face went livid and Jake realized just how ugly she could be. "It's your brother, isn't it? You never got over being with me the day he died."
He said it so emotionlessly that it terrified her. She took a step backward, but didn't relent completely. "You're still a dumb Tennessee hillbilly. Oh, you taught yourself to talk better. Your short temper has won you a reputation that men respect. You know how to please the ladies. But underneath you're still Bubba Langston, a stupid hick."
He stopped at the door. His eyes were no longer alight with mischief, but cold and hard. The skin over his face was stretched taut, the lines on the sides of his mouth more deeply engraved. "No, Priscilla. That boy Bubba vanished a long time ago."
Priscilla's fury subsided. Her eyes narrowed as she gazed up at him. "I'm going to prove to you that you still want me. That's a promise. One of these days you'll let yourself remember what it was like with us. We were just kids. Lusty, hot, dying for it. It could be that way again." Tilting her head back, she laid her hand on his chest. "I'll have you again, Jake."
Jake remembered too well the first time they had been together. That afternoon was indelibly imprinted on his mind. He removed her hand. "Don't count on it, Priscilla."
He closed the door to her private chamber behind him and stood there a moment meditatively. Business had picked up. The evening's diversions were in full swing. Scantily clad girls drifted through the parlors and gaming rooms, teasing, flirting, displaying their wares to the patrons. Several glanced at him expectantly, breathlessly.
He smiled but didn't offer them any encouragement. It wasn't that he didn't have the urge. He had been several weeks without a woman. While he would never have taken Priscilla, he wasn't made of wood either. The sight of her unclothed, the scent of female flesh, had been a strong stimulant.
One more glass of whiskey? One more game of cards? One hour in one of the upstairs bedrooms, one moment of forgetfulness?
One of the whores sidled up to him. "Hi, Sugar." Sugar Dalton had been in Priscilla's employ since Jake had been frequenting the place. "How're things?"
"Can't complain," she replied, smiling thinly through her lie. The lines tracking through her heavy makeup told him how bad things were and how much she hated her life. But she was pathetically resigned to it and anxious to please. Jake had always felt sorry for her. "I could make you feel good tonight, Jake," she said hopefully.
For her sake, he was almost tempted to take her upstairs. Instead he shook his head no. "But you can fetch my hat and saddlebag for me. Here's the ticket." He fished in his pocket for his claim check and she rushed off. When she came back, he tipped her fifty cents, much more than her errand, which he could just as easily have done for himself, was worth.
"Any time, Jake." She gazed at him with open invitation.
Should he be benevolent to her, kind to his starved body? No. Before he could change his mind he began making his way through the throng toward the front door. He had to catch that last train tonight. He was expected in Larsen tomorrow morning.
Banner Coleman was getting married.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 1991
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Grand Central Publishing