Jake tried to ignore the pinch of pain in his chest at the thought. He’d known about Mad Dog. Always.
Mama had told him long ago that his father was incapable of making a commitment.
But love, she told him. That’s not the same thing. Your father knows how to love—in his own easygoing way. He just doesn ‘t know how to stay. . . .
Jake swallowed hard. That’s all he wanted, all he needed. It was so simple, it sounded stupid, but he couldn’t force the need away. It had lodged in his heart the first time he heard about his daddy, and through all the years since, it had held fast.
And since Mama’s death, it had grown stronger. All he wanted now was a little bit of love.
That couldn’t be asking too much.
Mad Dog sat at the table, his legs stretched out in front of him, his ankles crossed.
The boy, Jake, sat across from him, still sitting as stiff as a knife, and Rass was sprawled in his chair, half-asleep. Mariah was at the sink, washing dishes.
He couldn’t take his eyes off her. There was a new softness about her, a lessening of the rigid propriety. He was mesmerized.
She turned away from the sink, suddenly, her damp hands twisted in the wrinkled linen of her apron. Across the room, their gazes met.
Her eyes widened. He waited for her to turn away, but she didn’t. Slowly she eased her hands from the apron and let them fall to her sides.
She looked incredibly beautiful right now, and somehow vulnerable. A dangerous, potent yearning swelled in his groin at the sight of her. All of a sudden he wanted to kiss her. Needed to kiss her. Jesus . . .
Rass’s chair creaked loudly. He leaned back and lit up a pipe. The acrid-sweet odor of tobacco floated through the room. Threads of gray smoke drifted across Marian’s face, obscuring her for a heartbeat.
"Sit down, Mariah. I have an idea," Rass said, puffing on the pipe.
She moved stiffly to the table and sat down beside Mad Dog, careful not to make eye contact. Her chair was close to his, so close he could smell the soft fragrance of vanilla that clung to her clothing.
"We could play a game," Rass suggested. "We’ve got that new Electoral College Game." He grinned at Mad Dog. "It teaches the method of electing our president."
Mad Dog tried to smile—he really did. "Uh-huh. Sounds great."
"I don’t know, Rass," Mariah said quietly, "Mr. Stone probably doesn’t like board games."
"I think bored is the key word," Mad Dog remarked blandly.
Mariah didn’t look at him, but he felt, oddly, as if she were disappointed. She started to rise.
Instinctively he reached out and grabbed her wrist. Her skin felt cool and soft beneath his chapped fingers.
She gasped quietly and turned to him, slowly lowering back to her seat until their faces were a handspan apart. Her lips parted in surprise. A tiny breath escaped.
His gaze held hers in a strong, velvet grip. She didn’t look away. Slowly her tongue peeked out, dragged nervously along her lips. Moisture glistened on the puffy pinkness of her mouth.
He almost groaned aloud.
"I didn’t say I didn’t want to play," he said quietly. "I just don’t want to play that."
"What did you have in mind?"
"How about something more . . . interesting. Like poker?"
Rass thumped his fist on the table. "Great idea."
She pulled back her hand. He resisted for a heartbeat and no more, then grudgingly let go.
"All right," she said, smoothing a nonexistent wrinkle from her skirt. "We shall try poker."
Rass set his pipe down and leaned forward. Resting his elbows on the table, he steepled his fingers and peered at Mad Dog. "How about making it more …
Mad Dog grinned. Strip poker. He bit back the entirely inappropriate response just in time. "What did you have in mind?"
"Team poker," he said. "You and Mariah against Jake and me."
He glanced at Mariah and grinned. He couldn’t have planned it better himself.
"What’ll we play for?"
"How about a fish breakfast? Winners catch and cook," Rass said.
Mariah frowned at her father. "Winners?"
"Do you have a problem with that?"
"I just thought—"
"No problem." Mad Dog cut her off seamlessly.
Rass grinned triumphantly. "Perfect." Then he patted Jake on the back. "Come on, partner, let’s talk strategy."
Mad Dog smiled. Rass and Jake could talk strategy from now until morning, and it wouldn’t help. Mad Dog was gonna win this game.
Nothing—but nothing—was gonna keep him from spending the morning with Mariah. Even if he had to fish.
"I fold." Rass slapped his cards down on the table.
Jake grinned. "Me, too." His cards landed alongside his partner’s.
Mariah glanced down at the ten facedown cards. She had a strong urge to sweep them into her hands, but Rass had been firm on the "no peek" rule.
Mad Dog fanned his cards out in front of him. "What a surprise. I win … again. And with a pair of threes." He turned to Mariah. "What about you?"
Mariah laid her cards down and frowned. She was starting to get extremely nervous.
She and Mad Dog were winning with unbelievable regularity. She was beginning to suspect that Rass was letting them win. And she did not want to win. "Not even a pair. Ten high," she said in a tight voice.
"Well, you’re too good for the likes of us," Rass said, scooting his chair back and standing. He stretched and yawned, clamping a veiny hand over his mouth.
"We’re not done playing!" Mariah almost yelled. Rass grinned. "Yes, we are. You two won." He turned to Jake, still smiling triumphantly. "Lord, I’m tired. How about you, Jake?"
The boy grinned up at the old man. "Dead tired."
Mariah glanced at Jake, and felt a squeeze around her heart. "You want to sleep in the guest room?"
The boy cast a nervous look at Mad Dog. "N-No. I got my stuff in the barn already."
She frowned, wondering what Mad Dog had to do with Jake’s decision to sleep in the barn. "Well, if that’s what you’d prefer . . ."
Rass smacked the boy on the back. "I love a good fish fry. Don’t you?" Then he glanced down at Mariah and Mad Dog. "We’ll be down for breakfast around 6:00.
Will you be ready?"
Mad Dog shrugged. "It’s fishing, not flame throwing. How hard can it be?"
"I believe the last time you said that, you were talking about picking apples … or was it the pigpen?" Mariah reminded him dryly.
He laughed. "That’s work. Fishing’s fun."
She gave him a wry look. "Is it?"
He turned to her. "Isn’t it?"
"Certainly. What could be better than getting up before dawn to squish a bunch of slimy living animals onto metal hooks?"
He leaned toward her. "Will it be dark?"
She frowned. "Of course."
He gave her a slow, dangerous smile.
God help her, she reacted. Anticipation crept down her spine in an icy shiver.
"Then, believe me, Mariah. It’s gonna be fun."
Marian sat on the porch’s top step, her knees drawn in close to her chest. Beside her lay two fishing poles, a willow trout basket, and a top-of-the-line Borcherdt’s tackle box.
She closed her eyes and leaned against the wisteria-twined porch post. The dry scent of dormant leaves teased her, reminded her of spring, when the thick, twisted brown vine had been leafy green and ripe with pale purple clusters.
It was still in the hour before dawn, preternaturally quiet. No crickets chirruped their mating calls, no frogs called out from their hiding places in wet thickets along the river, no birds chattered to one another. The darkness was unbroken, a black blanket thrown across the rolling fields.
A whistle cut through the silence, riding gently, lightly, on the air. Then came the quiet crunching of bootheels on the loose rock path.
Her stomach tightened, anxiety spilled through her. Reluctantly she lifted her head and looked up, trying to see Mad Dog in the darkness, but she couldn’t. She could hear his footsteps, imagine that easy, loose-hipped walk of his. Then the footsteps stopped.
"Helluva goddamn time to get up," his said in a scratchy morning voice. "That coffee I smell?"
She nodded stiffly. "I packed a flask."
"And you filled it with coffee?" There was a pause, and Mariah was somehow certain that he grinned. "Tequila warms you a lot quicker."
Mariah laughed in spite of herself. "I don’t believe I want you that warm, Mr.
He moved toward her. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
Her gaze narrowed, tried to pierce the darkness, but he was no more than a shadow against the night, a presence felt but unseen. "Too late, Mariah," he said in a voice so intimate, it sent shivers down her spine. "I’m already hotter than you want me to be."
His silken words caused a red-hot shudder of response. Deep inside her, where no man had touched in years, and no man genuinely, she felt something. A spark of emotion that was powerful, but completely foreign—need, desire, she wasn’t sure what.
Yearning, she realized suddenly. That’s what it was. Deep down she yearned for something, for someone. She always had.
And you always will, she reminded herself sharply. Mad Dog Stone, drifter-vagabond-boxer, was not the man to fill the void in her empty soul. He didn’t want anything from her that he couldn’t get from a dozen women. And he wouldn’t stay long enough to find out what she wanted.
Somehow, that made her sad. Then angry.
"Mr. Stone," she said tightly, "I cannot stand this constant banter. Will you please save it for a woman more interested in hearing it?"
There was a breath-laden pause before he answered. "I think you like to hear it, Mariah."
Her heart skipped a beat. And that second of reaction made her angrier still.
"Obviously you’ve made a mistake, Mr. Stone. You’ve confused me with one of the big .. . built, easy women with whom you no doubt spend your time."
"What makes you think I like big tits?"
Mariah knew immediately that she’d erred. "I really do not want to have this discussion with you, Mr. Stone."
He climbed another step.
Mariah steeled herself for his sensual assault. Her arms curled around her knees and locked hard.
He stopped. She heard his breath, just above her head, slow and easy, each breath a silent invitation.
In the distance, the horizon caught fire. A low, hazy line of red-gold sunlight blurred through the black night, sending feelers of warmth through the dark sky.
Slowly he dropped to one knee in front of her. The step sagged beneath his weight.
"It so happens I like smaller br**sts, Mariah." Her name fell from his lips in a whispered, disembodied caress. "With pale pink n**ples that get hard when I—"
"Stop!" She lurched to her feet so fast, he was caught off guard.
With a muttered shit, he half fell, half stumbled down the steps and landed with a thud in the flowers.
Mariah spun around and picked up the fishing gear. Ramming it under her arm, she yanked up her skirts and headed down the stairs. She was almost to the wash-house when she heard him call her name.
Reluctantly she came to a stop. "Yes?"