It took John and Kathleen days to get used to traveling by wagon.
Sadly the farther west they went, the more roadside graves they saw, and scatterings
of cherished household goods that had been discarded by preceding emigrants to
lessen the wagon loads.
Those grim and inescapable reminders of the hardships, sacrifices
and hazards of overland travel kept them mindful of the need for extreme caution. And Kathleen was particularly cautious when
she was preparing meals over the campfire, for the ever present winds whipped the flames dangerously close to her skirts.
For John, caution was paramount when fording rivers and maneuvering through deep ravines. There had been plenty of both in
the one hundred miles that now lay between them and Fort Laramie.
"We've been traveling for days," John muttered in disbelief one evening after reining in, "and
we're still in Wyoming." They made camp alongside an angrily foaming brook in a vast mountain
meadow. In keeping with their customary routine, Kathleen prepared the
campfire and unloaded the cookery while John, who had become lefthandedly proficient with a rifle, went in search of wild
game. As soon as the evening meal was over they, as usual, made quick work of the dishes, then wearily bedded down in the
Sleep was generally instantaneous, but on occasion one or the other would lay awake listening to
the wolves in the distance and yearning to reach out for the other. As much as
John longed to hold Kathleen near and make love to her, the deep and ever growing affection for the dark-haired beauty convinced
him that such an intimacy would only add to the sorrow of their parting. When
he considered their parting, as he often did, he wondered if she would miss him as much as he knew he was going to miss her.
Kathleen, on the other hand, was still too saddened by the
passing of her daughter to really think beyond the daily needs and the strength and sense of security she'd gained
from John. Instinctively, she'd come to know that in time there would be lovemaking between them. And when at last that moment
came, it was as spontaneous and beautifully natural as she had dreamed.
They'd halted travel earlier than usual on that day to rest the horses, and had set up camp alongside
a winding mountain stream. John had wandered up the bank of the sundappled water
to the rapids to fish for trout. Kathleen had hauled out the laundry. For the first time in her life, she washed clothes in
a stream, and on a rock. It was more of a backbreaking chore than she had anticipated. By the time she's hung up the last
of the laundry to dry, her hands were a sorry state and she was soaked to the skin. Those discomforts, added to the days of
dust and grime from the trail, made her feel less than human.
Kathleen regarded the stream longingly, then returned to the wagon. She secured a towel, hairbrush, and
the one luxury she'd brought from the Fitzgibbon home, a bar of fragrant lavender soap.
Back at the water's edge, she shed her clothes. The sun, filtering through the abundant cottonwoods,
was warm on her body and the gentle breeze caressing her flesh made her feel delightfully wicked. She laid her clothes over
shrubbery to dry, then removed the pins from her luxuriant hair, letting it tumble
about her shoulders. Kathleen inched her way into the water. How refreshing it was. She ducked under, immersing herself, then
indulged in a brief but leisurely swim before lavishing on the lavender soap from head to toe.
Bath completed, Kathleen left the water. She wrapped the towel about her and sat down on a sunwarmed
boulder at the stream's edge. As she brushed her hair, she listened to the warbling of meadow larks and smiled from time to time at a pair of scampering squirrels. Heather would have loved them. Kathleen
was so engrossed in the cherished memories of her daughter that she did not notice John return to camp.
And John didn't see her sitting downstream until he crossed and placed the string of trout he'd
caught into the water to keep them fresh until supper. Then his heart leaped
out of rhythm as his gaze dropped from Kathleen's beautiful face to her creamywhite shoulders, then slid down over the snugfitting
towel to her shapely legs. He reminded himself to stay away from her, to spare them both from any possible hurt.
Clinging to that resolve, John also secured a towel and soap from the wagon. But he went upstream
to bathe, maintaining a safe distance between them. For all his determination, though, he couldn't keep his eyes from returning
to Kathleen. They had been through so much together, grief and hardships that had strengthened the bond between them. Now
their closeness made him want her
all the more.
John shook off the thoughts that warmed his blood and scrubbed his flesh as if he were trying to scrub away the tormenting desire. He left the water, dried himself, and wrapped
the towel around his waist. Another look downstream conveyed Kathleen was still sitting on the
rock. John caught up his clothes. As he started back to camp, she glanced up, as if she sensed she was being watched. Their
eyes met and held, then he saw her gaze wander down the front of him and linger on the towel. Warmth stirred anew in his loins,
and he moved helplessly toward her.
Kathleen moistened her lips against the sudden heat surging through her. The towel John wore left
little to the imagination. Why, just the sight of his bare chest and the taut muscles in his arms and legs quickened her pulse.
He narrowed the gap between them. "Had yourself a bath, too,
I see," he said as if he hadn't spotted her before he'd gone into the water.
"Yes, it felt wonderful." Again their gazes locked and the desire Kathleen saw in his eyes made
her lightheaded. Unable to think clearly, she stammered as she came to her feet, "I should go now and get dressed.
The huskiness that came into his voice increased her lightheadedness
and Kathleen felt as if her legs were about to give way. "Not if you don't want me to."
"I'd like for you to remove your towel."
"You remove it." Her voice fell to a sensual whisper. This was the moment she'd dreamed of and she intended
to savor each second, each sensation.