"Thank the Lord above that you're here, Hollis. I need a strong pair of arms for this job." Silas Allen's voice sounded from the darkened depths of the cow barn.
Graham Hollis squinted into the dimness, pausing in the entrance to let his eyes adjust. The reek of hay and animal filled his senses. A shaft of light broke through the high window, and dust motes swirled hectically in the beam. He stepped into the barn, and his eyes seemed to immediately adjust.
"I'm glad to help." He extended a hand to his neighbor, and they shook. Silas was an hour's hard ride from Graham's family ranch--the Hollis Ranch. A work hand had arrived at the house early that morning, asking for help with pulling a calf.
"How long has she been having difficulty?" Graham asked Silas. He crossed the barn to the stall, from which the sounds of heavy breathing emanated. He zeroed in on the heifer, taking stock of her condition instantly. She was looking drained--not a good sign. The Hollises were known for raising horseflesh, but they raised their share of other livestock to live on. They'd even supplied the Confederacy during the war.
Jerking away from that thought, Graham knelt down in the hay before the reclining cow. Her belly hitched and rolled, her thick brown hide quivering. A long, guttural noise burst from her muzzle.
"She needs attention and quick."
"Yessir, that calf's been trying to set eyes on the world for many hours now. As soon as I realized Clarabell wasn't going to birth it on her own, I sent for you," Silas said.
Graham cast a sidelong look at the slip of a woman hiding in the shadows. "Why don't you fetch me that rope on the far wall?" His command was followed by a stunned silence.
"Come on out here, Kathleen, and do the man's bidding," Silas said to his daughter.
As a lithe young woman scurried across the hay, her thick auburn hair a tangled braid on her spine, Graham hid his grin. The Allen girl was known as "Nibby" to her neighbors because as a little girl, she was always skulking around where she wasn't allowed, listening to important adult conversations. She'd earned the name because her face was usually pressed to the window, her nose mashed into a nib.
Her light footsteps tripped back to him. She thrust a rope over his shoulder. He sat back on his heels and started rolling up his shirtsleeves in preparation for the dirty business of calf pulling.
"Just hold on to it, Nibby," he said. She grunted, and he smiled outright at her obvious discomposure at being called Nibby. Did she think he wouldn't remember after all these years? The war had stolen a lot of memories from him and replaced them with bad ones, but he recalled the days before he and his cousin Xander rode off to join up with the Second Cavalry. They'd swung by the Allen place and spent some time putting up hay for them. Nibby had followed him all over the ranch.
She shifted closer at the same moment Graham drew a deep breath. The perfume of lavender and pure female walloped him. Not just female. Aroused female.
Unable to stop himself, he cast a glance over his shoulder, finding her inches away. If he turned fully, he'd be directly in front of her sex. Visions ripped through him of pushing her skirts up, the fabric draping over his wrists as he leaned in and inhaled that delicious perfumed spot between her thighs--
Fuck. You're in need of a trip to town. No whorehouse could fulfill the need in him for a tender woman, though. The cats that strutted in those houses were far from naive.
Nibby should be at least eighteen by now, shouldn't she? He passed a hand over his face, hoping to scramble the lust on his features before her father called him out.
He accepted the rope from her. "Thank you kindly."
"You're welcome," came her soft reply.
The hairs on his nape lifted to the whispery sound, every inch of his cock on fire now. Damn, he was going to have to pull this calf and hightail it out of here before Silas caught sight of his erection.
Hoping she'd move away, he wrapped the rope around the small cloven hooves of the calf that were visibly protruding from its mother. As he looped the rope, he had to reach inside the cow's slimy womb. Another long moan sounded.
"Oh, poor Clarabell." Nibby scooted around him and dropped to her knees at the cow's head.
"You be careful there, miss. She's a might unhappy." Graham tugged on the rope, checking to see if it was secure. "Silas, do you happen to have a lantern? I could use a spot of light."
"Sure do." Footsteps crunched behind them as Kathleen's father went off in search of a lantern. Hopefully he wouldn't go too damn far. After gulping breath after breath of the woman's scent, Graham couldn't be responsible for his actions. His cock was about to burst the confines of his pants.
He cast a sidelong look at her and found her staring at him openly. Without meaning to, he let his gaze roam downward to the lush globes of her breasts pressing against the white linen of her blouse.
In recent years, he hadn't been a praying man, but at this minute, he needed all the help he could get. It might take divine intervention to keep him from closing his hand over one of those round breasts and clamping the other on her waspish waist.
"How old are you?" he asked with too much force.
Her eyes widened, flashing a darker hue. What color were they exactly? Now Graham wanted the lantern light so he could discern their color. Her pouty pink lips opened and then shut abruptly in shock at his ungentlemanly question.
Finally, she seemed to gain her wits as the crunch of hay preceded her father to the stall. "You remember that horrid nickname, Mr. Hollis. I'm surprised you don't recall my age."
He tore his gaze from her mouth before he lunged forward and kissed the hell out of her. He gave the rope another tug to distract himself, and the cow released another low. "I was a grown man the last time I saw you, remember. And you were barely knee-high."
Even through the dim light, he saw her face mottle dark red. Pitching her voice low, she infused it with the wrath he'd ignited.
"I was not knee-high, Mr. Hollis. In fact, I was ten years old!"
"Which makes you...?"
"Here you are, Hollis." Silas moved into the wooden stall with them, the glowing lantern held aloft. Tension crackled in the very air. Nibby tore her gaze from Graham's but not before he got a good look at her eyes.
Fuck, cornflower blue. I'm a dead man.
Without ceremony, he wrapped the coarse rope around both hands. He locked his muscles and tugged. The calf moved within its warm, wet home, the bony ankles appearing. The cow's belly undulated. He yanked again, digging in his boot heels to gain some traction. The calf continued to come inch by precious inch.
At Clarabell's head, Nibby crooned, using quiet, nonsensical words. A barn cat slinked up to her and began to rub itself on her hip.
"Christ," he said before he could bite off the curse.
Nibby shot him a glance that went straight to his groin. If he didn't get out of here soon, he'd be unmanned in a dank barn and be forced to ride home in a state of sticky wetness.
He put his back into pulling the calf. He used as much exertion on the rope as he could. The little body gave a few inches at once, and he nearly toppled backward. Nibby loosed a gasp that only served to ignite him further. Lurid thoughts revolved through his mind. Could he make her issue that sound in bed?
With a primal roar, he pulled the body of the calf from its mother. It slid into the hay nose first--a wet and sloppy and solid little form.
Nibby cried out and jumped to her feet. Graham released the rope and clenched his hands into fists to keep from grabbing the woman, tossing her over his shoulder, and making off with her.
A Hollis never dallies, he reminded himself. The men in his family didn't trifle with women. They married them or they kept their peckers in their pants.
As Graham recovered from his panting desire, Silas pushed past him and quickly unbound the calf's front legs. The heifer lurched upward to nudge its baby. It began licking it with long, slow laps of its tongue.
Nibby drifted a step backward until she stood at Graham's side. Heat ebbed off her tight little body and scorched him.
"I thank you mightily for that, Hollis," Silas was saying. The older gentleman stood and brushed the loose bits of hay from his pants. "There's a spring out back where you can clean up." He swung his bright gaze to his daughter, who was blushing furiously.
What was going on in her pretty little head? Graham didn't even want to know.
"Kathleen will show you the way."
Graham wanted nothing more than to turn on his heel and run back to his horse. He needed to get the hell away from Kathleen, not to be left alone with her, copious amounts of water, and a white, lace-trimmed linen shirt that would so easily reveal the color of her skin beneath when wet.
He thwacked a hand against his thigh. Through a tense jaw, he spoke. "Thank you kindly."
Was that a puff of air leaving her lips? His cock hardened more, if such a thing were possible.
"Uh... Just this way, Mr. Hollis." She slipped past him without even a brushing of their sleeves. His balls drew up tightly to his body as the air stirred around her, the currents bringing her scent fully into his head once more.
Stiffly, he followed a few paces behind her. Try as he might, he couldn't keep his gaze from scouring her curves. Her waist was tinier than he'd first thought, her hips swelling out in womanly splendor. She kept her back ramrod straight, but she moved with the loping grace of a woman well accustomed to country living.
He flicked his gaze down to her feet. Her bare heels flashed beneath her churning skirts. How many petticoats did she have on? Surely she was outfitted like a proper lady, being eighteen.
Eighteen and fair game.
He stifled a groan. Sweat had broken out all over his body, and it had very little to do with pulling that calf. Need blazed within him, a wildfire that would not be easily doused.
The ground was rocky and uneven between the barn and the spring. A few hundred yards off, the house stood, a weather-beaten but sturdy structure quite like the owner, Silas. The rest of the farm looked to be in need of some work, though. The barn had some loose boards and there simply wasn't enough ventilation for the cattle, let alone light. How had Silas managed to raise animals in such a shelter? The Hollis family believed in giving their animals plenty of sunlight.
Ahead of Graham, Kathleen sashayed through the high grasses. As they neared the spring, she slowed, picking her way more slowly in her bare feet.
He caught up to her. "Thank you for your assistance in the barn."
She sniffed and lifted her chin a notch, bringing his attention to the slender column of her throat. Her skin was as pale as new milk, marred only by a faint spattering of freckles across her nose and forehead.
He looked away. Damn, those freckles were as enticing as the rest of her. She had to have a fault besides being nosy, but it wasn't her appearance.
When she continued to ignore him, he attempted to get a closer look at her. The brim of his hat hung low, and he pushed it back.
She stopped walking and looked at him long and hard, her fingers twitching in the fabric of her skirt. All at once, he realized she was angry.
"Listen, I'm very sorry about calling you that nickname. It came to my mouth before my brain could snag it back."
She narrowed her eyes, but the corner of her full lips twitched.
He doffed his hat, holding it theatrically over his heart. "Please accept my apology, miss."
She went completely still. Her eyes grew rounder, accentuating the dark fringe of lashes surrounding the very blue depths. She was like stone, unmoving. Worry jumped into his chest. Was she going to faint from the heat? Had she been stung by a bee? He'd known a man in the war who had died from bee stings before the Yanks could get him. Maybe she was affected similarly. She wasn't wearing shoes.
He reached out for her automatically. Putting his hands on her was the only way to find out if she was truly all right.
His fingers brushed the underside of her arm and wrapped around her wrist. He stared down at them, wondering how that had happened while reveling in the delicateness of her bones. His fingers were very dark against the ivory of her blouse.
"Nib--I mean, miss? Are you all right?"
Her breath was coming fast, her breasts rising and falling, making the cloth of her shirt strain over them.
"M--" His words were cut off as she bridged the gap between them, stepping right into his arms.
One last thought flitted through his head. A dead man.