by Helen Adams
Main Characters: Ezra/Inez
Authors Note: This short story is complete in itself but is the first of what is intended to be a set of three stories
It should have been criminal for a day to be as hot as the one the citizens of Four Corners were currently suffering through. Yes, sir, criminal, and the inside of a dark and stuffy saloon had to be one of the worst places to spend such a day. The drinks were distastefully warm, the quarters too close and nobody, himself included, felt the least bit interested in card games.
'So why are you here, you fool?' a snide little voice whispered inside his head.
Ezra Standish sighed deeply, wishing he had a good answer. The fact was he had come here out of habit. There had simply been nothing better to do. Lately, even the criminal element seemed discouraged by the unrelenting heat and there hadn't been a peep of trouble in town all week. Things were getting downright boring.
Why, he wondered, hadn't he taken a page out of his fellow peacekeepers' books and vacated the premises? He had not even seen Vin or Chris today, though rumor had it that Chris had gone fishing with young Billy Travis. Buck had been around at breakfast time but had quickly left to search out what he called "hot summer lovin". Ezra had rather liked that description and knowing Buck, he had probably succeeded in his quest at least once by now. Josiah was watching the jail today, and Nathan was scheduled to leave shortly for a visit to Rain and her people at the Seminole village. Perhaps he had gone already.
Ezra grimaced, slumping down a little further in his chair. Even JD had managed to find something better to do than hang around an empty saloon. He had gone off somewhere with Casey Wells to do a little swimming. Or, Ezra thought idly, perhaps Mr. Dunne would finally attempt to woo his lovely paramour into trying Buck's preferred summer pass-time.
He smiled at that, silently wishing the young man luck, and then his expression became melancholy once again. There were days when he truly envied his friends. Chris had his charming newspaperwoman to romance, Nathan had his lovely Indian maiden and JD had the sweet and feisty Miss Wells. When he had been as young as JD, Ezra too had been eager to find and settle down with the right girl. Eventually, though, he had come to enjoy his freedom too much to ever seriously search for her. He had never been as indiscriminate with his affairs as Buck Wilmington, but certainly satisfying his own desires for pleasure and fun had been a top priority.
When had he become so enamored with social respectability? He really did not know, but that growing concern had certainly interfered with his social life of late, and he was increasingly forced to content himself with dreams instead of reality. Unfortunately, dreams just weren't enough sometimes. The wealth of physical yearnings and emotional longings they produced only seemed to leave him feeling empty in the light of a new day.
It was growing tiresome. He wasn't quite needy enough to start imitating Buck's rampaging stag routine but sometimes, if he were to be completely honest with himself, he wanted to. Some longings a man just couldn't deny forever.
Drawn by his musings, Ezra's gaze wandered across the room to settle upon the young woman polishing glasses behind the bar. Inez Recillos looked as if she, too, wished she had someplace better to be and something more fun to do. The wistful smile on her lips and the far away look in her eyes reached out to Ezra, making him wish that he could join her in whatever world she currently inhabited.
Propping his arms upon the tabletop, the gambler studied her. Seemingly returning from her daydream with a soft sigh, Inez tossed her head, flipping her long black tresses back from her face. Raising her hands, she gathered the hair atop her head, holding it away from her neck for a moment before dropping the mass back down. The skin of her shoulders was revealed by the cut of the loose-fitting white peasant blouse she wore over a full red skirt, and the waves of hair teasingly caressed that exposed skin as they fell.
Her arms reached up toward the ceiling in a luxurious stretch and Ezra's breath caught as he watched a bead of sweat trickle slowly down the smooth brown skin of her throat, traveling in a torturously enticing line toward the deep channel of cleavage just visible below. There was no way she could know what sweet torture her gestures were inflicting upon her audience of one, especially when the motion of her arms lifted her chest high, drawing her breasts into sharp definition against the light cotton blouse. Dear God, she was lovely.
A soft sound escaped Ezra's lips at the sight and he dropped his face into his hands, the degree of longing he felt suddenly painful to bear.
A chair dragging abruptly against the floorboards and a strange little whimper caused Inez to look over at Ezra. She had forgotten anyone else was in the saloon, so quiet had it been.
Surreptitiously, she studied him, wondering what could have provoked such an odd noise. The man had been sitting at his usual table playing solitaire for most of the morning but now he had given up on the cards entirely; not even shuffling them in thoughtless intricate patterns as was his habit. The deck lay forgotten; their owner sitting with both elbows propped upon the table with his forehead resting on the heels of his hands. It was a strangely despondent pose, and a worrisome sight.
Inez shook her head. Ezra did not seem to be coping with the heat as well as he normally did. He had not even bothered dressing with his usual panache today, appearing downstairs without jacket or waistcoat, contenting himself with a crisp linen shirt and simple string tie. The tie had not lasted an hour as he had fussed and tugged at it, finally yanking the offensive article free and stuffing it in a pocket. Some time thereafter the top button of his shirt had been loosened and finally he had even rolled his sleeves up a bit, something she could not remember seeing him do before.
Drawing a beer from the coldest tap available, Inez crossed to the gambler's side and placed the mug before him. A trickle of sweat was slowly creeping its way down the side of his face and as he straightened, realizing that he had company, the droplet slid over his jawbone and down his neck, disappearing into the collar of his once-crisp shirt. The garment had wilted throughout the morning until it was, as now, clinging damply to his body. His collar had become lopsided where he had been tugging at it and Inez smiled, reaching out to straighten the material. Her fingers moved slowly, drawing the creases carefully back into alignment, thumbs ghosting over the skin of his neck.
Ezra shivered slightly in reaction to the touch. He had been surprised at the woman's sudden nearness and far more so by her tender gesture. He felt his skin growing even hotter at her proximity and knew that telltale color was rising in his cheeks. Had she somehow felt the painfully sharp longing that had coursed through him a moment ago as he watched her?
As if in answer to his thoughts, delicate fingers; deliciously cool from the glass she had held; slid away from the collar and brushed against his throat, flicking open another shirt button. Ezra gasped at the touch, closing his eyes. Her right hand drifted across his chest to rest atop his heart. He wondered if she could feel it pounding, if she knew what she was doing to him.
"Is that better?" Inez asked softly. "Is there anything else I can do for you? Perhaps I should get Nathan."
A startled jerk pulled Ezra back away from the concerned touch, his eyes wide. For a moment, he had been sure that Inez was about to offer something far different, but the moment was ruined by that single word. "Nathan? Why?"
Confused by the sharpness in his voice, she stammered, "I-I. Are you not ill? Your skin is flushed and you appeared to have a headache. I thought perhaps the heat . . .?"
She trailed off lamely, a slightly bewildered look in her eyes and Ezra silently cursed himself, realizing that he had started to allow his imagination to run away with him. Of course Inez had no idea what he had been thinking. How was she to know that he was feeling lonely and, to put it bluntly, undersexed? It wasn't as though he had ever confessed to any less than platonic desire for her company. She had merely been responding to what she saw as a friend in distress. Well, that much was certainly accurate. He was definitely in distress but Nathan Jackson was not the person he needed to help him feel better!
With a deep sigh, Ezra reached out for her hand. "I apologize, my dear. I'm afraid I'm a little out of sorts today. With this heat, I haven't been getting much sleep and the lack seems to have endowed me with all the charm of a wounded grizzly. Please, forgive me for snapping at you."
Seeing his honest regret, she smiled. "De nada. I should have realized. I will leave you alone."
"No, don't. I . . ." He spoke quickly then trailed off, suddenly caught between a strong desire to confess his feelings and an equally strong fear that she would not appreciate hearing them. "I believe I've spent far too much time alone of late. Perhaps you could join me for awhile?"
The hesitation in his voice caught Inez off guard. Nodding silently, she accepted a seat at the table. She had seen Ezra off balance before. The first time they ever met he had not been at his best, and only rarely since that day had he faced her with any sort of honest emotion.
Something had changed today. Ezras expression was open now and there was something in his eyes that made her pause. For just a brief moment when she had touched him, Inez had thought she felt something; a tremor in his skin, a quickened beat in his heart. Perhaps those signs had not, as she had assumed, been part of any heat-related illness. The way he was looking at her now, so intense and almost sad, made her own pulse speed up. There was such longing in those wide green eyes, such . . . desire?
Nervously gathering her courage, Inez moved closer and reached with hesitant fingers to touch his cheek.
Ezra did not move, fearing that she might pull away again if he so much as swallowed. The need to do just that was becoming overwhelming as a hard knot of emotion filled his throat. He could not tear his gaze away from hers, hope filling him as he observed a sort of wonder blossoming in Inez's dark eyes. He licked his suddenly dry lips and the woman's pupils dilated at the sight, following the subtle motion of his tongue. She subconsciously copied the gesture and Ezra felt his entire body tense in response to the surge of blood that shot through his lower region.
Sensing and correctly interpreting the change in his body language, Inez gasped. How could she have missed something that had probably been between them all along? Or maybe it hadn't. Perhaps Ezra was as taken aback by the intense desire suddenly charging the room as she was.
Drawn by the power of that feeling, she rose from her chair and leaned forward, feeling greatly daring as she pressed her lips lightly against Ezra's. His lips were soft and warm, moving gently in response to her touch. Emboldened by his reaction, she hesitated only a moment before helping herself to a lightly balanced seat upon his lap. Feeling Ezra's arms rise to cradle her body against him, Inez kissed the gambler again, one hand circling his neck to play with the damp curls of hair resting atop his collar; the other hand sliding past those two temptingly open buttons to brush the hot skin of his chest.
Ezra moaned softly at the touch, the last of his hesitation vanishing like smoke on the wind. His hands slid over Inez's back, burying themselves in the rich waves of her hair as he returned her attention with hungry needful kisses of his own.
It had been far too long since he had felt like this. Hell, he wasnt sure he had ever felt like this! Certainly there had been a number of ladies over the years to excite him; working girls who had given nights of fleeting pleasure for the right price; genteel ladies from whom he had stolen kisses and the occasional daring caress. Even a few not-so-genteel ladies who had invited him to teas and suppers as a socially acceptable excuse to tear his clothes off the moment the door was safely closed to the outside world.
Those had been what he had come to accept as normal. Just a playful tease or a quick businesslike fuck with no emotional repercussions to deal with afterward, that was all a man needed or wanted. Ezra did not know when that had changed but it most definitely had. This, here and now, was more than he had ever expected. With nothing more than a few kisses and hesitant touches, Inez was making him feel wonderfully, incredibly alive. Every nerve ending was on fire, tingling with excitement, making him want to return the pleasure he felt twice over.
As Ezra's mouth opened beneath hers, the tip of his tongue darting out to tease at her lips, Inez pressed her mouth hard against his, squirming into a firmer seat upon his lap as both arms moved to encircle his shoulders. Ezra groaned at the contact, feeling his already excited manhood grow harder as the woman ground against him.
Grinning a little at the telltale pressure against her hip, Inez took full advantage of his sudden distraction, darting her tongue inside his open mouth to explore and invite him to do the same.
Hands roaming, breath panting, the two kissed like it would be their last chance on earth. Their tongues grappled, tasting and teasing, neither really trying to establish dominance, both completely caught up in the new sensations surging through them. The rest of the world ceased to exist for them, until . . .
A loud, exaggerated throat clearing brought the two new lovers back to reality with an unpleasant jolt. Inez sprang to her feet, blinking rapidly, hands automatically moving to smooth her dress and hair as she beheld two observers that she had been completely unaware of until now. Vin Tanner was tugging at his wide brimmed hat, looking a trifle embarrassed but unable to stop grinning at them.
The responding color in Inez's cheeks paled in comparison to the blush heating Ezra's far fairer skin. His reaction was a combination of chagrin over having been caught in a compromising position in such a public place, and a sudden surge of sick dread over what might be about to happen. For the other observer was Buck Wilmington, persistent would-be paramour of the lovely Ms. Recillos.
Ezra did not bother to stand. He could just imagine how 'interrupted' he must look with his hair rumpled and his shirt partway undone. To stand would only remove any last shred of dignity, for he was at an embarrassing half mast below the belt line.
"I don't suppose there's any point in protesting that this is not what it looks like," he said, half-heartedly attempting a smile.
Vin chuckled softly. "Nope, I think ya pretty much lost that chance when you didn't notice the first three times we tried to get yer attention. Figured we was gonna have to help ourselves to a drink then maybe go fetch Nathan when the two a ya passed out from lack of air."
"Oh, Lord," Ezra groaned, rubbing a hand across his face.
Inez giggled suddenly, the humor of the situation beginning to overtake her as Vin continued to grin, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. Buck, who had worn a rather shocked expression up to then, began to laugh as well.
Ezra's head flew up, eyes wide with astonishment at the sound. Perhaps Buck would not be attempting to kill him today after all. "Mr. Wilmington?"
Instead of answering, Buck moved to Inez and kissed her on the cheek. "Well, darlin', I guess we're just destined to be good friends after all." The bar manager smiled back, signaling her agreement. Turning to Ezra, the mustached man grinned hugely and slapped him gently on the side of the head, much the way he often did JD. "Damn, hoss, I didn't think you were ever gonna open them eyes!"
For a moment Ezra stared at him blankly, then in a shocked tone said, "You mean to say you knew that I had feel-" He stopped, realizing that he was about to reveal more than he had intended to. "That is, you felt there was a chance I might approach Inez and displace you in her affections, yet you said nothing? Why?"
Buck and Vin exchanged a pitying look patently designed to irritate their southern friend.
"Y'know, he likes to keep it hid an' all but Buck's a pretty smart feller," Vin said, voice low as though revealing a great secret. "He seen all them looks you two was shootin' at each other and he figured ya wouldn't do nothin' about 'em unless there was some competition involved."
"But all of your advances toward Inez," Ezra sputtered. "You cannot tell me that you didn't mean any of them!"
"Well, sure I did. At first," Buck confirmed with a wink to Inez, "but I figure that when a lady says 'nunca' she means it. I also figured there had to be a pretty good reason why she was saying it, so I took a good look around me and sure enough, turns out some sneaky feller had already staked a claim on the lady's affections."
There was an admiring light in Buck's dark eyes as he grinned at the gambler and Ezra could not help grinning back. It seemed he had won a hand he had not realized he was anteing up for.
Inez laughed. "So, my wise amigo, does this mean you will be satisfied to be el hermano de mi corazon?"
Seeing his blank look, Ezra supplied, "The brother of her heart."
A beaming smile blazed across Buck's face. "I think that'd be right nice. Keep in mind though, that if you ever decide you'd rather have the tall, dark and handsome type . . .
"Si, I will keep Senor Nathan in mind," she replied serenely. Vin broke out laughing again at Buck's flummoxed expression.
Rising from his seat, having recovered sufficiently by now to do so, Ezra picked his hat up off the table and looked at Inez, his expression a jumble of bewildered feelings. "I had better find myself somewhere else to be for a few hours. Much as I would prefer to stay, I should allow you to get back to work."
"Afraid temptation might prove a bit too powerful to resist a second time?" Buck asked delightedly. "If you want, me and Vin could hold down the fort for awhile while you two kids go upstairs and talk."
The innuendo Buck laced that simple little word with was enough to instantly bring blushes back to the faces of both his targets. Buck smiled devilishly at them, hugely enjoying the effect.
"I do not think we are quite ready for that yet," Inez said firmly, sending a spike of disappointment through Ezra's masculine heart, even while his common sense agreed with her.
Fidgeting with the hat in his hands, Ezra offered, "I have an afternoon patrol and a late shift at the jail tonight but perhaps you would allow me to escort you to dinner tomorrow night. I'm sure we could find someone trustworthy to tend the bar for a couple of hours."
One brow rose toward Buck, waiting to see if he would volunteer again. Wilmington rose to the occasion. "It'd be my pleasure. Gotta get you two lovebirds off to a proper start now, don't we?"
"That's right," Vin agreed with a grin. "You best be getting the lady home at a decent hour tomorrow night, Ezra. Don't make me be getting out the shotgun."
Rolling his eyes but secretly grateful that neither man was going to make a scene over this unexpected social development, Ezra put his hat on and tugged the brim. "Yes, sir." Reaching out to cup Inez's chin, he said softly, "I'll see you later."
Inez smiled, reading a wealth of hope and promise in those simple words. "I cannot wait."
Tipping his hat to the assembled group, Ezra took his leave, a huge smile lighting his face. Suddenly he felt as thought it was his birthday, Christmas and the 4th of July all rolled into one.
Continues in First Date