The Debutante’s Cowboy
Coyote Jack’s Wild West Show
The Main Tent
Elinor Armstrong stood on a high board twenty-five feet off the ground, holding a fly bar in two hands, preparing for a full somersault in mid-air. The practice hours at Coyote Jack’s allowed her the opportunity to learn the acrobatic feat. And the people of the traveling show had graciously indulged her whim and had taught her, a Houston debutante, how to fly. Her partner swung from the opposite side, hanging upside down by his knees with his arms outstretched.
Her heart in her throat, Elinor pushed off and gained height as she’d been taught. Once she and the catcher had synced their swings, she let go of the bar, curled her body and flipped in the air before latching on to his muscular arms. She crowed with delight at another successful trick then let go of him so he could release her to the waiting mattresses below.
As soon as her feet touched the stuffed canvas, she rolled as she’d been taught then sprang up with a flourish. Claps sounded, and she spun to bow to her audience of one, but came face-to-face with a thunderous scowl instead.
“You just took years of my life,” Trap Ferguson growled.
“You’re back,” she exclaimed, her excitement shooting to the stars. Grinning, she launched herself at him.
He caught her easily, as he could since he was the strongest and most masculine man in Texas, but he only held her for a second before pushing her back and squeezing her shoulders. “What the hell was that?”
“I’m learning to be an acrobat.” She batted her lashes at him.
“The hell you are,” he roared.
She rolled her eyes and disengaged herself from his grip. “I’ve got to practice more. Wait until you see.” She turned to head to the ladder, but he grabbed the ruffles on the back of her leotard and stopped her. “Trap,” she cried and tossed a look over her shoulder.
He pulled and she had no choice but to stumble backward. “Let go, you big lummox.” She tugged at his grip, but had no leverage and had to work to keep her feet under her instead.
Once behind the stands, he whipped her around, and as she drew breath to give him a piece of her mind, he slammed his lips onto hers. The kiss consumed her immediately, as it always did, and she threw her arms around his neck and shoved herself against him. Her cowboy lover. The man who inspired her as no other ever had.
He held her so tight, she could barely breathe, but she didn’t care. She’d missed him so much. But she wouldn’t dare tell him the secret wishes living in the deepest parts of her heart. If he knew, he’d leave.
Her head swam with desire and desperation. Did he understand her longing? Did he know its true nature? Did he realize the hunger he caused affected her clear to her soul?
When they came up for air, he set his forehead on hers, breathing heavily. “Elinor,” he rasped.
At some point, his hat had fallen. She ran her hand over his beard then pushed her fingers through his brown hair. “I wanted to show you what I learned while you were gone.”
“I already saw it. It scared me. I don’t want to see it again.” He kissed her on the nose. “But,” he exhaled. “It was amazing. Just like everything else you do.”
She smiled up at him and batted her lashes again.
He chuckled then took a step back. His expression turned steely and wolfish as his gaze raked over her frame. “What’s this you’re wearin’?”
“It’s a leotard.” She twirled for him, showing off the tights and short shirt. When she faced him again, the heat in his eyes made her pulse race.
“Seems like you should only wear that for me while we’re in your bedroom.”
She winked at him, but before she could give him a flirtatious reply, her humble audience interrupted their conversation.
“Well, Trap Ferguson,” Charlotte Allen called as she strode toward them, “if you’re through manhandling my darling friend and neighbor, perhaps you’ll tell me how your drive went.”
Charlotte was responsible for much of the development and advancement of the Houston economy, and she also owned her own stock of longhorns.
“Just fine, ma’am. Didn’t lose a steer this time.” He leaned over and picked up his Stetson.
“That’s lucky,” Charlotte answered, smoothing down the drapes of her narrow skirt.
“No luck, ma’am. Just hard work.”
The older woman lifted her brow at him then turned to Elinor. “I’m going to return home, dear. I believe you have an escort back and don’t need my buggy.” She chucked Elinor under the chin. “You, hoydenish girl, you.”
Elinor laughed as her friend left. When she was alone again with Trap, she turned to him. “We can go home now if you want.”
His gaze darkened. “I want.”
“I’ll have to change first.” She gave a little twirl then looked at him coyly over her shoulder before heading for the dressing area where her regular clothing awaited. Her heart thumped in happiness for the evening and days to come. After a three month separation, she was ready to drown in him. If only she could be sure he would always return.
* * * *
As his heart pounded hard and his body pulsed in pleasurable after-shocks of perfect love-making, Trap pulled Elinor close to his side while in her bed. The sweetest armful he’d ever known cuddled up against him and sighed in contentment.
“What did you think of my new talent?” she asked him.
It had scared him half to death. With his eyes closed, he said, “I already told you.”
“I wanna hear it again.”
And her wish was his command. The knowledge punched him in the gut, as it had been doing for the last year. “You were beautiful and graceful, but it scared me. I don’t wanna see it again.”
She let out a huff.
But he wasn’t gonna budge. Of course, that didn’t mean she would refrain from participating in the high flying feat. Elinor Armstrong did what she wanted, when she wanted. It was one of the many reasons why he…
Damn it. He couldn’t say it. Even in his head. But the words were there. Whispering. Threatening.
If he ever got stupid enough to tell her what he wouldn’t allow himself to admit even silently, their relationship would end. It was part of the deal. No demands. No rules. Just fun.
And they sure as hell had had fun. Everywhere. When he wasn’t on the spring or fall drive for the Swinging A ranch, he was traveling across Texas with her or tearing up the Houston night life with her by his side.
Elinor was a darling of Houston Society. Her father was a wealthy stock broker, and she was the widow of a railroad tycoon. She had a lot of money. Not that Trap cared about that. He could take care of himself, and she didn’t buy him anything. Not even his whiskey.
They’d been together for five years. And he hoped to God it never ended. He’d like to make it official, but he wouldn’t dare tell her that. Never mind the nature of their relationship, he was a cowboy, and while he’d made a ruckus with her and some of her rowdier society friends, he’d never escorted her to one of her more civilized events. She’d never asked him. No starched collars for him. No satin vest or fancy pocket watch.
Only chaps, denims and a white Stetson. He was not of her world. So he kept his mouth shut so he could have what he did.
“You might want to find a card game tonight,” she murmured.
He’d thought she’d fallen asleep. He was almost there. “Oh?”
“I’m hosting a party for the hospital. You’d be bored.”
His heart sank to his gut. “All right. I can kick back in the hotel or somethin’.” Had disappointment rang in his tone? He gritted his teeth and waited for her response.
A beat of silence passed, then she replied, “You’d have more fun.”
He snapped his eyes open. What had he heard in her voice? Sadness? Sorrow? If so…why?
* * * *
Elinor drifted from room to room of the stately manse she’d inherited from her late husband. She missed Walt. She’d loved him, of course, but not as much as she loved Trap Ferguson. She should have realized she’d fall for the cowboy. Why hadn’t she paid attention?
Five years they’d been together, which was four years and eleven months longer than she’d thought she’d get. And whenever he was set to return from a drive, she held her breath and prayed he’d come to her. And, so far, he always had. She should be content with what she had with him. Instead, she strolled the large home, despondent, yearning and wishing for more.
Servants scurried about preparing for the benefit for the hospital. Trap had left an hour ago, and there had been something in his eyes she couldn’t identify. Something in his kiss that had felt distant. Her heart pounded hard as anxiety made her stomach turn. She floated to the piano in the ballroom, and stood at the instrument, staring down at it.
Juliette, her housekeeper of ten years, barked orders around her as stands of flowers were placed about the room. But Elinor barely noticed. She reached out and depressed a key. She sighed as a rip rent her heart. She missed Trap. Gone only an hour, and she was already lonely for him.
Had she upset him too much with her high-flying acrobatics? Or…had their love-making not satisfied him? A lump of sadness formed at the base of her throat, and she tried to prepare herself. It was bound to happen; Trap leaving her, that was.
As tears threatened, she shot out of the ballroom and hastened to the kitchen. Once she arrived amidst the hustle and bustle, she called, “Daisy, can I do something?”
A white cap covered the black curls of the cook’s head, making her dark skin glow. She worked at the counter, kneading dough for either dessert or bread. As she arched an eyebrow, Daisy said, “You ought to be getting dressed.”
Elinor lifted her chin. “There’s enough time for that yet. I need to be busy.”
With a sigh and shake of her head, she nodded at a basket of unshelled peas. “Get to work, then.”
Grateful, Elinor found an extra apron, rolled up her sleeves and set her mind to her task.
* * * *
The light spilling from the windows of Elinor’s columned home on Caroline Street almost made Trap turn around. What in hell am I doing? I’ve gone and lost my sense.
But instead of retrieving his horse and fleeing, he continued up the steps and into the main hall. After taking in a deep breath and letting it out, Trap scanned the area. People he didn’t know milled about, wearing fine attire and glittering jewels. Trap refrained from tugging at his celluloid collar or pulling at the ends of his satin vest. He was done feeling as if he shouldn’t be a part of all aspects of her life. Something had been in her voice this morning, and he was going to find out what it was.
And if she wanted what he hoped she did, then the best way to prove to her that he wanted the same, was to wear this stiff get-up. As he maneuvered around clumps of people and servants who gaped at him, he worked out what he would say once he found her.
He drifted into the ballroom where an orchestra played and couples twirled. The sea parted, and there she was. His pulse sped up at the sight of her in a silk gown the color of a golden sunset. Her almond curls swayed as she talked with animation to the three people making up her group. She had yellow flowers in her hair, and he imagined plucking each one of them out and watching her luscious locks fall around her perfect shoulders. After she said yes to the question burning inside his heart.
When her spine went tense, he realized she sensed someone watched her. She turned, and he held his breath.
Her jaw went slack when she saw him. Wonder moved through her gaze as she slowly looked him over. Color rose in her cheeks, and when she lifted her eyes to his, a hopeful light looked back.
Confidence barreled through him, and he strode forward, took her in hand and away from the crowd. He didn’t care if the wealthy people left behind were offended.
She allowed him to lead her out of the room and down the hall, for once keeping quiet. With the beat of his heart roaring in his ears, he opened the door to the library and pulled her inside. Thankfully, no one else had found this out-of-the-way chamber.
He closed them inside then turned to face her. Candles flickered about the room, bathing her complexion in a soft and warm glow. He swallowed.
“Trap,” she breathed.
And the awe in her tone made him want to grab her close, but a few things had to be settled before he put his hands on her. “You look beautiful, Ellie.”
“You look…” She raised her hands and took a step forward.
He steeled himself against her touch as she ran her palms over his chest and shoulders.
“It’s Deacon’s,” he murmured. Trap’s foreman had been shocked when he’d asked to borrow the get-up.
Her lashes fluttered upward. “Why?” she said softly.
He wasn’t dense and knew what she really asked about. After a moment to collect himself, he explained, “I wanted you to see that I can fit into all parts of your life.”
Her brow knitted. “I…did I assume incorrectly about…” She clutched the lapels of his coat. “Did I hurt you in some way?”
With his heart his throat, he brushed his knuckles over her cheek. “No,” came his gravely reply. “All that hurts…is being away from you.”
She melted into him and raised her lips to his. They shared the softest and sweetest kiss, and his instincts told him he had not read her wrong. But he had to stop or they’d end up on the floor with her dress probably ruined. He stepped back, and he had to clench his hands into fists to keep from returning to the hungry look in her eyes.
“It’s time we change the nature of our relationship.”
Shock passed over her face. “You want to leave me?”
Had she lost her mind? Did she not see what he was wearing? “Woman, what gave you that idea? Do you see the suit I forced myself to put on?”
She swallowed but said nothing, her yearning, fearful and hopeful expression bolstering his courage. Whatever else happened tonight, he would leave this room with her promise to be his wife.
He lowered to a knee, and she gasped and took a step back.
“Ellie, I know we said we just wanted fun and companionship, but I’ve discovered that’s not enough for me.” His heart kicked against his ribs. “I want to look at you for the rest of my life. I want to be irritated by you, and exasperated with you, and…loved by you forever. I want your kiss, and only yours.”
She cupped her cheeks as tears hovered in her gorgeous green eyes.
“Will you marry me?”
“Trap,” she murmured, her voice shaking on his name. “Oh, my.” And she hurried forward and leaned down to set her mouth on his.
They kissed with abandon, with relief. Excitement poured through him in waves. She was going to be his.
She pulled back. “You love me?”
With a smile filled with amazed disbelief, she lifted her head to the ceiling and laughed in delight. “I had hoped for so long.” She looked down at him. “I have loved you for so long, I—”
At her admission, he pushed to his feet and wrapped her in his arms, holding as tight as he could without hurting her. Then he took her lips again, and this time, he let hunger reign. He pushed her up against a wall of books, and she lifted her legs around his waist.
There was too much fabric between them. But the impediment reminded him of where they were. With a strength he didn’t know he had, he lifted his head, breathing heavily. “You’ve got a house full of people.”
She bit her lip as need shone in her eyes. “But I—”
“I’m not going anywhere.”
Her smile was as brilliant as the stars. “Never again.”
He cocked his head to the side. “Well, just on the drives, but this is my home now. You are my home.”
“I could go on the drives with you.”
At her foray into the old argument, he groaned and set his forehead to hers.
She lowered her legs as she launched into the debate they’d had for years. “Angelique went on a drive once, and I can throw a lasso and ride just as good as any man.”
“A cattle drive is no place—”
“I can do it.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“The fellows won’t like it.”
“They all love me, and I’ll make sure we have fun.”
He groaned again. She had to ask now, when he was feeling all generous because she’d said yes. Damn it. “Fine.” He was going to get reamed out into next Sunday by his foreman.
She crowed in delight and pushed at him to let her go.
He stepped back and watched as she picked up her skirts and clicked her heels together. “I’m gonna be a real cowgirl.”
He closed his eyes. “Deacon’s gonna kill me.”
She sidled up next to him, her gaze shining with happiness and desire. And love. “I won’t let him lay a finger on you.”
Her cute bravado always got to him. He fingered one of her curls, then picked a flower from her hair. “I feel much safer,” he said softly.
After a few moments of staring down at her beautiful face, he took her hand and together they left the room to join the party.