Here, in the cool quiet of the pool, she could let her stiff facade slip away, let it be lost in the swirling current. For a few precious moments a week, she could be herself.
She stood there a long time, relaxing, enjoying the feel of the breeze and the sun on her face. It felt almost like a touch, and she shivered in response. It had been so long since anyone had touched her, really touched her. Years …
She closed her eyes, trying not to think about it, battling the wave of sadness that accompanied the thought. It was the price of safety, she knew. Isolation meant safety, but safety meant loneliness. It was a truth she’d known, and tried to accept years ago. But sometimes, like now, she felt her loneliness, her disconnection from the world, so sharply, so keenly, that she wanted to cry.
It was such a simple thing, being touched, and yet it would mean so much___
She pushed the depressing thoughts aside with practiced ease. She crossed the river where it was shallow and went to her usual spot on the other side. Slowly she unpinned her heavy hair and shook her head, reveling in the feel of her loose, unbound tresses. Finally she peeled off the ugly brown dress and kicked it aside. A breeze molded the thin linen undergarments to her body.
She shuddered at the caressing touch of the wind. The lacy eyelet of her undergarments fluttered against her flesh. She unlaced her canvas boots and threw them aside. They landed in a heap with her stockings and dress.
Leisurely, her arms at her sides, she walked into the river, giving herself over to the one purely sensual pleasure in her regimented life. Cold water seeped through the flimsy linen of her underclothes. The fabric clung to her goose-bumped flesh.
She went in, deeper. Deeper.
Water lapped at her knees, her waist, her br**sts, i swirled around her like a lover’s gentle touch. A cool breeze pushed the water in ever-widening circles around her.
She dropped her head back into the water. Droplets slid along her forehead and gathered on her lips. She tasted the clean, pure freshness of it, and imagined for a moment—just a moment—that she was being kissed. She dragged her tongue along her full lower lip, savoring the water’s sweetness.
Behind her, the rope lay in readiness, as it had every Saturday for years. She took hold of it, feeling the coarse texture of the knotted hemp beneath her slick palms.
She let her feet go out from under her; they drifted upward, floated weightlessly toward the surface of the pool.
She closed her eyes and lay there, motionless, floating, feeling the caressing lick of the water against her flesh and the stirring touch of the breeze on her damp face. Her every sense felt heightened. The air seemed clearer, cooler; the earthy, fecund scent of the bank filled her nostrils.
She let out her breath in a deep, contsnted sigh. Lord, this felt good.
Mad Dog crept through the orchard behind Mariah. He knew he shouldn’t be following her—he had no right. But he couldn’t help himself. She’d been so damned odd in the bathing room, so unlike herself. He sensed that she was hiding something, and he had to know what a woman like Mariah Throckmorton had to hide.
The rushing babble of the river became louder and louder. At the last lonely apple tree, he stopped and peered around.
She was standing beside the river, where a curve in the land created a smooth, jade green pool. Beside her, a huge, wind-sculpted oak tree stood guard, its golden-red leaves flickering gently in the breeze.
She closed her eyes and reached up. One by one, she pulled the pins from her hair.
Unbound, the thick, curly brown mass tumbled downward, framing her face.
Sunlight caught dozens of reddish strands, turning her dull, ordinary brown hair into swirls of mahogany fire.
She shook her head for a moment, smiling, then reached behind her again.
Mad Dog swallowed hard. His throat dried up. His heard pounded hard and loud against his rib cage. He started to back away. He shouldn’t be here, shouldn’t invade her privacy—
The baggy brown dress slid down her body and landed in a heap at her feet. She kicked it aside.
He froze, unable to move. Holy shit. Mad Dog let out his pent-up breath in a sigh.
His hands started to shake. He shoved them in his pockets.
She opened her eyes.
He lurched behind the tree, waiting in silence for her to march up to him and slap his face.
Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore.
Heart pounding in his ears, he peered around the tree. At first he didn’t see her.
He edged a little more away from the tree. Just enough to watch.
She was standing in the water now, shivering, wearing nothing except a creamy, scoop-necked chemise and matching drawers. The thin fabric clung to her curves, sculpted her tall, lithe body.
Mad Dog’s reaction to the sight of her was swift and hard. He let out his breath slowly. Jesus, he couldn’t believe the transformation. Relaxed, without that godawful pinched expression on her face, she was almost beautiful. The harsh austerity of her features seemed suddenly sculpted, classically chiseled.
She walked into the water, submerged, until all he could see was her pale throat and face, and her hair, fanned out and floating atop the jade water. She dropped her head back, wet her hair, and came back up.
Droplets of water slid down the sides of her face. She licked at one, tasting it. Her wet hair was the color of rich coffee; it made her skin look impossibly pale, her lips incredibly pink. And her eyes … Christ, her eyes were like brilliant topazes against the creamy softness of her skin.
Reaching behind her, she grabbed hold of something. Her body angled upward, floated on the surface. She lay as still as a fairy-tale princess, her body moving in the undulant rhythm of the current. Her small br**sts rose and fell in gentle, even breaths, the hard peaks straining through the wet fabric.
Mad Dog stared at her. It was impossible to look away. There was no trace of the prim, proper spinster in the woman floating so calmly on the surface of the water. In her place was a woman as sensual and powerful as nature itself.
A woman who could have a big secret in her past, a pile of trouble behind her.
Mad Dog felt the hardening ache of desire. It throbbed, made his jeans feel tight.
For a crazy moment, he pictured himself going to her right now. He closed his eyes, imagining the creamy soft feel of her skin, the hard pinkness of her n**ples.
A soft groan escaped him. God, he yearned to take her in his arms right now, to drag her against his hardness and kiss her. She would taste of innocence, freshness, and surrender.
Suddenly he wanted to know her. The real her, not the facade she presented to Rass and the rest of the world. He didn’t want to know the spinster; he wanted to know the wood sprite who floated half-naked in a lonely pool of water. The woman who might have had "trouble" in her life, the woman with secrets.
He smiled. Who would have thought a nice, quiet little farm like this would hold an honest-to-God mystery?
Goddamn, it was intriguing. And the longer he stared at her, the more he wanted to know the truth.
Under all that drab brown fabric and starched blouses was a woman of fire and passion. A woman he wanted to know. Maybe even needed to know.
He pushed away from the tree. Turning, he headed back to the farm. With every step, he thought about her, wanted her. By the time he got back to the house, he had an honest-to-God goal. He was going to strip the facade from Mariah Throckmorton and see the real woman.
He grinned, feeling a surge of anticipation. This was gonna be fun.
Jake saw Mad Dog follow the stiff-looking lady across the orchard. He waited a long time—maybe too long—until Mad Dog disappeared down by the river.
It was Jake’s chance. With a quick glance both ways, he made a beeline across the yard and raced up the steps.
At the door, he paused and looked around, then cautiously eased it open. It creaked loudly.
Jake drew in a hard breath.
No one yelled at him, or came running.
He let out his breath and slipped inside the house. The mouth-watering aroma of simmering stew drew him toward the kitchen. His stomach rumbled loudly. Saliva rushed into his mouth.
He surged to the icebox and skidded on his knees, wrenching the wooden door open. Inside, he found some leftover ham and cold potatoes. He jammed the food under his arm and closed the icebox.
He was halfway to a stand when he heard the front door open.
He froze for a heartbeat, then dove beneath the table.
"Rass, are you home?" Mad Dog’s voice called out from the other room.
Jake huddled against the table leg, the precious food crushed to his heaving chest.
The front door squeaked shut, then clicked. Heavy-heeled footsteps thudded down the hallway. Another door opened, closed.
Jake sat there, waiting, his every sense strained to the breaking point.
He closed his eyes and banged his head back against the sturdy table leg. He was getting so tired of this, tired of running and sneaking and stealing and hiding. Tired of wanting.
He wanted to belong in a house like this one, wanted to sleep in a real bed and feel safe at night.
He shook his head. He should do it right now, before Mad Dog had a chance to get away again. Jake closed his eyes, picturing for the millionth time how it would go.
He’d walk up to Mad Dog and demand-Demand what? The familiar question sparked a red-hot flood of frustration. He didn’t even know what he wanted from Mad Dog—so how in the world did he think he’d get it?
Maybe tomorrow, he thought dully, but as usual, the words had no sting, no bite.
He didn’t believe them for a second. Tomorrow would be no different from today, or yesterday, or the day before that.
The sound of running water leaked into his thoughts.
He crawled out from underneath the table and paused, looking around. Then he lurched to his feet and ran for the front door.
He opened it gently and peered out.
The place looked deserted. He clutched the stolen food against his empty stomach and ran from the house.
He was so wrapped up in his own pain, his own failure to do what he’d set out to do, he never saw the pair of eyes that watched him run back to the barn.
Mariah stood at the range, cooking supper. The sweet and sour scent of baking sauerbraten filled the warm kitchen. Boiling water popped at her from the big black pot. Pale globs of spaetzle dough bobbed in the roiling surf. Beside it, butter slid back and forth in a small cast-iron pan, leaving streaks of thick, boiling gold in its wake. On the shelf above the range sat a crockery bowl full of bread crumbs.
Everything was on schedule.
She smiled. The reassuring organization made her feel good, added to the sense of well-being she’d felt since this afternoon.
She was so proud that she hadn’t let Mr. Stone’s presence deter her from her swim.
It was important to her, necessary. Without it, she ended each week feeling like a raw nerve.
The tension started first thing Sunday morning—with her first reluctant glance at the graves—and built day by day, until by Saturday afternoon, she was close to screaming.
The swim removed it all. Now she felt strong enough to take on the world. Or one weary, ill-mannered drifter.
She was sure she could keep her passionate responses to herself now; she wouldn’t react to Mad Dog’s taunting.
"Go ahead," she murmured with a smile, "take your best shot. I’m ready for you."
"I’m ready for you, too." Mad Dog’s quiet voice came at her from the doorway.
Mariah winced. Damn him for sneaking up on her. She stiffened and reluctantly glanced at him.