“Do you?” he asked, touching the end of her nose with the tip of one finger.
“Yes, I do.” She spun, watched him shrug on and button his coat. “And I know there is a fort full of men who could ride out to find someone, so why you?”
“Because I’m in charge.” He caught her beneath the chin with the same fingertip. “No harm will come to you while you’re here. I’ll personally see to that.”
The trepidation in her eyes grew. “But who protects you?”
He chuckled, already enjoying the second battle of their war. His finger trailed down her neck before he lifted it to tap her nose yet again. “Never fear, I won’t make you a widow before I truly make you a wife.”
“I swear, Seth, the harder I look, the less I see,” Millie declared, pulling the horse to a stop to study the land. It was like looking at the sea, except instead of rolling waves of water, there was flat ground covered with brown grass that didn’t end until it met the sky at the ridge of the horizon.
His baritone laugh, a sound she’d heard more and more over the past week, had her insides doing somersaults. Fun ones, the kind that made her smile. There hadn’t been any more flower or saddle soap incidents, and a unique kind of truce had formed between them. One she could definitely live with. Seth was by far the most charming and attentive husband imaginable.
He was resting one arm across his saddle horn, and his hat shadowed the upper part of his face as he studied her directly. “That, I think, is the best description of Indian Territory I’ve ever heard.”
The grin on his face made hers increase. She turned back to the empty scene that in an odd way was quite magnificent. “There’s barely a tree.”
“There are trees north of the fort. In the Wichita Mountains.”
“Mountains?” This had been her first excursion outside the tall walls since her arrival, but from what she’d seen during the wagon ride, and from what spread out before her, she couldn’t imagine the flatness becoming mountainous.
“Well, they’re more like foothills,” he said. “It’s a full day’s ride, though, and not a trip I’m willing to let you attempt.”
The hammering of her heart told her what she thought about that even before her mind kicked in. His protectiveness was uncanny, and wonderful. “Oh, you let me travel two hundred miles with two men in a wagon with no canopy, for five days, seeing nothing but prairie grass and red dirt, yet you won’t let me ride for a day to see mountains?”
Not even the sky overhead was as blue as his eyes when he removed his hat. The smile on his face grew, revealing the dimple in his cheek. He winked, and her insides jolted and fluttered so fast and hard her breath locked in her lungs.
“That,” he said, “was before I knew you.”
A heated sensation engulfed her chest, and went lower, all the way past her stomach. Bowing her head, for her face was on fire, she pressed her bottom against the saddle. Goodness, but he had an effect on her. His kindness and generosity had her thinking about things she’d never thought of before. Ridiculous things. Like kissing.
Especially at bedtime, when he’d wish her good-night from her bedroom doorway, the desire inside her grew so strong it was troubling. Pretty much like it was right now.
“Come on,” he said. “It’s time we headed back. I have a surprise for you.”
Her head snapped up so fast her hat jostled. “A surprise?”
She turned the horse around, kept it even with his. The happiness she’d experienced the past week was amazing, and it just kept increasing. Every day she awoke with a newfound freedom. Never before had she been able to climb out of bed knowing there was no merchant she had to confront, no “friend” she had to assure had misheard something her sister supposedly said, and no fear she might accidently say the wrong thing and have her sister as furious with her as she was with the rest of the world. Lately all Millie had to wonder about was how bright the sun would shine. There was still the pretense of her being here, but Seth never brought it up, and that was utterly liberating.
Glowing inside and out, she asked, “What kind of surprise?”
He reached over and tipped the brim of her hat lower. It was dark blue with a flat brim, an army-issued one just like his, but smaller, and he’d fastened a string through the felt to tie beneath her chin.
“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”
“I can keep a secret,” she insisted.