A slight tap at the door roused Claire from her exhausted slumber in a chair near Ellie’s bed. She immediately checked on the woman; thankfully she was still asleep. They had bound her abdomen with bandages several hours ago, and it appeared to be working—her excessive bleeding had stopped. Tia slumbered on the floor, a faint snore signaling her location at the foot of the bed and near the window. She lay flat on her back, and Claire thought the position looked terribly uncomfortable. Through the white, threadbare curtains a light blue sky signaled the coming of a new day.
Louisa leaned inside. “Ellie, she is better?”
Claire rubbed her stiff neck and wondered at Louisa’s ability to appear lovely and composed so early in the morning, her shrewd pitch-dark eyes gazing from a flawless complexion. The black-haired woman had obviously not been to bed—except for business, Louisa’s regulars were a loyal group—since she still wore the same attire from the previous night, a red silk dress that accented her brown skin and had been sewn by the Mexican woman herself. Claire’s disguise, a tight-fitting black gown she looked forward to shedding, had also been designed and stitched by Louisa.
Claire stood, reminded again of the plunging neckline that emphasized her breasts, the pale skin a sharp contrast to Louisa’s sultry beauty. A part of her, so miniscule she hardly acknowledged it, had enjoyed squeezing into the disguise, had enjoyed the revelation that she was a woman and was built of the same features as any other female. She viewed the human body in terms of healing, or as a means of male satisfaction; never had she considered her own attributes as something beautiful, something desirable. Had Logan appreciated any of what he’d seen?
It shouldn’t matter what Logan thought.
“Yes,” Claire replied.
“I must bother you. All the clients, they leave except one, and he only ask for you.” Louisa pressed her full lips together as she shook her head. “I told him you no take customers this night, but he no leave. I offer myself—many times—but he say no. I’m thinking.” She gave a coy smile. “You must give the dress back.”
Tired, Claire’s mind could only focus on two things—Logan was still here, and Louisa was working her charms on him, a thought that made her feel unbelievably jealous. She had never before been envious of Louisa’s curvaceous body or easy sexuality, but one thought of her working Logan over made Claire feel threatened.
She moved past Louisa and paused in the doorway. “You’re certain he’s alone?”
“Sí. But you no go like that. You need wig.”
Claire nodded, not wanting to explain why she didn’t need it. “Send him to Maggie’s room.”
Louisa cast a surprised glance her way. Claire decided not to set her straight.
She could have met him downstairs in the saloon, but her gut told her a private meeting would be better. She wouldn’t have to compete with Louisa for Logan’s attention. And while she could have taken him to the room she occupied behind the White Dove—a separate cabin Maggie had constructed for both Claire and Jimmy—the thought of inviting him into her personal space disquieted her.
Claire walked to the end of the hallway and entered her mama’s room where a layer of dust covered the bureau and nightstands, the bed neatly made with a white lace coverlet. She unpinned her hair and scratched her scalp, wondering what she should say. She could explain everything—her whole damn life, in fact—but she doubted Logan wanted to hear it. Better to say as little as possible. He was sure to be leaving for Texas in no time at all.
With the door ajar she heard his boots on the wooden floor. A flutter of anticipation engulfed her.
Logan tapped on the open door, removed his hat and stepped into the room. Claire sat in a chair at the foot of the bed still wearing the tight black dress; her exposed shoulders and the swell of her breasts skimmed his mind like a tantalizing breeze on a hot summer day. With hair spilling down to her waist, she was, despite the dress, a vision of everything natural and straightforward, a woman that would fill a man’s world and connect him to life in the most basic sense. The vision unsettled him while at the same time his mind took a mental count of the money he had on him, wondering just what her price might be. Shit, he was in trouble.
“I can’t believe you’re still here,” she said.
Sunlight poured in from the window behind her and illuminated her hair with a golden hue. His wish about seeing her hair down had just been granted. How many more wishes were likely to come true?
“Yeah, well, I don’t normally hang out in saloons all night.” He closed the door, leaned on it and crossed his arms. “How’s your friend?”
“I think she’ll be all right. You really ought to get some sleep yourself. Did you come straight from Texas?”
He nodded and noticed the dark circles under her eyes. She needed rest as well.
“How’s your family?” she asked.
“They’re doing fine. Matt and Molly got married.”
“They did?” Her eyes widened in surprise.
A smile turned up the edge of his mouth. “There was definitely no stopping it. Just took ’em awhile to come around.”
A wistful expression crossed Claire’s face. “I’m really happy for them.”
“What’s going on here? Have you always worked in a place like this?”
Her smile vanished. “I’ve been at the White Dove since I was a little girl.”
Shocked, Logan didn’t know what to say. He’d dealt with his fair share of fancy girls and harlots during his watch in Virginia City—the mining town had been overrun with saloons, dance halls and brothels—but it didn’t prepare him for the knowledge that Claire had lived, still lived, such a life.
He forced his mind to focus on something else. Her safety.
“Are you in trouble?”
“Why would you ask that?”
“Just a hunch.”
Claire pushed a hand through her hair and looked at him with a serious expression. “I’m as fine as I’ve ever been.”
She raised her arms to take in the surroundings then let them drop to her sides. “I know what you must think.”
“You have no idea what I think,” he replied and wondered why she got to him. It wasn’t just the physical attraction, though God knew she appealed to him in every way possible—from the swell of her breasts to the flare of her hips to her unforgettable golden hair. But beneath it all was something else; he had a strong intuition there was more to Claire than was obvious. For that reason he should push her to tell him everything—why she was a prostitute, why she continued to live a life like this, why she was in trouble. But did he really want to get that close to her and risk his heart yet again? Common sense told him no.
“I hope you’ll use…discretion when telling your folks about your visit here,” she said. “They were very kind to me.”
“You could come back to Texas.” The words were out before he realized it. “I’m sure Molly would be happy to see you again, and my ma could help you find something productive to do.”
A flash of Claire’s astonishment was quickly hidden behind a glazed look of regret, and if Logan hadn’t been watching her he would have missed it.
“Thank you for the offer,” she said slowly. “But I have obligations here.”
When she stood Logan’s thoughts went unwillingly to the bed. But extending this meeting in tangled sheets would only make matters worse. He knew that. But the thought was there all the same.
“Will you be leaving today?” she asked.
“I suppose so.” He had no reason to stay except for the woman standing before him.
“Tia will probably be awake now and I’ll be needing to get her home.”
As Claire closed the distance between them Logan felt a twinge of disappointment when she reached for the door behind him. For a moment he thought she might reach for him. Damn, I must be more tired than I thought.
“I’ll take her,” he said. The words stopped Claire in her tracks. A small victory, which brought her less than an arm’s length from him and gave him a brief moment to memorize the incredible green of her eyes. “You look exhausted. Why don’t you get some rest.” The urge to kiss her was strong. “And you’ll always be welcome at the SR.”
Her eyes filled with tears and he would have touched her if she hadn’t lowered her face, effectively shutting him out. “I’d be most grateful for your help with Tia,” she said. “And please give Molly my best on her wedding.”
Reluctantly he stepped aside as she reached for the doorknob. Hesitating, she brought her gaze to his. “Have a safe journey home,” she added.
And for a second time Logan watched Claire walk out of his life.
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