Pinching herself, Eliza lost interest in everything except seeing what the stranger looked like in the lantern light. Brawny stalwart men were nothing new in a railroad town or on the ranch, but she never minded a good view.
Her breath caught so hard her sore rib tweaked. He was magnificent. The big-brimmed hat and flowing duster reckoned him a wrangler of some sort coming in from the range. Although he needed a bath and truly looked the worse for wear, she didn’t mind one single bit. The scruffy cheeks, the long rag-taggle coat, even the scent of masculine sweat were far more her style than the slick-haired dandies and overdressed fops she’d met at Boston cotillions.
“This here’s Ransom,” Ben said helpfully.
As the stranger moved closer, he removed his hat and tucked it under his arm with a polite half-nod. For a long luscious moment, eyes the color of manly liquor covered her with a mouth-watering gaze. Golden-brown hair touched the mountains of his shoulders like sunlight at dawn across the Guadalupe Mountains.
Air left her lungs. A slow burn started at the top of her spine, her flesh desperate for the days’ worth of roughness adorning cheekbones carved like crags and valleys. She had to hold her hand still to keep her fingers from caressing the deep etches of his face.
Eliza couldn’t move as she stared up at him, aching and eager. Oh, she was no stranger to fine-looking cowpokes and no simpering virgin to boot. Twice, to spite Granny, she’d lain with a hearty, handsome ‘hand from Desolation, but found the first time dreadful. So dreadful truth to tell, she’d been persuaded to try again a month later after she hadn’t turned up with child. Again, not so good. So what had brought on this urgent longing for a man she didn’t know?
Not knowing what else to do, she held out her hand, organizing her trembling lips. “How do you do, Mr. Ransom.”
“No mister, ma’am. Ransom’ll do.”
“Here’s Miz Eliza,” Ben said. “Our schoolmarm.”
Eliza silently thanked Ben for letting Ransom know she was unattached. Married women didn’t teach school.
Slowly he removed his gloves and pocketed them, his gaze never leaving her face. In spite of the cold, heat rushed down from her head to weaken her knees. When their fingers met, her toes exploded. “Where are you from, Ransom?” she managed.
“Sweetcream,” he said without hesitation, his voice low, mysterious, barely hearable. She liked it.
“Why, I’ve got kin there. Luetta Lodge.”
He stiffened at her words, from the cold most likely, and put his hat back on. “Good night now, Miz Eliza.”
The way he said her name, slow, low…why, she’d not be able to sleep well tonight.
If at all.