It was the clip-clop sound of horse’s hooves that brought Rebecca rushing to the window of her B&B that morning. It wasn’t a common sound in Whistle Stop, not lately. And the 26-year-old proprietor had always had what might be called “romantic leanings” for cowboys…or cowgirls, in her case.
Or maybe it was the fact that it was the maid’s day off, and Becky was tired of cleaning. In any case, she was to be disappointed, because it wasn’t a horse after all, and no dashing cowgirl riding it. It was a donkey, a small gray burro, and the stranger walking beside it looked as tired and as dirty as his animal.
They paused beside the Café, and then the stranger led his donkey right up to the door, as he poked his head inside. Becky winced as she imagined Ruth’s expression, seeing the beast right up on her front porch like that. She was tempted to go over and find out what was going on, but she waited. For one thing, in a small place like Whistle Stop, nothing ever stayed a secret for long. For another, the stranger was obviously going to need a room, and hers was the only inn in town.
Sure enough, there was a knock at her door only ten minutes later. Even though she was expecting it, she was still startled when she opened the door. The stranger was literally dusty from head to foot, with bright blue eyes gazing out from a face covered with grayish-brown dirt, his grin even whiter against the grime. He removed his Stetson to reveal a band of tanned forehead and long, streaked blond hair.
“Hi there. I was told you might have a room to rent?” And Becky got her second shock.
“My gosh, you’re a woman!”
The stranger’s eyebrow rose, and Becky flushed. “Well,” a drawl and a glance down at herself, “I admit it’s hard to tell behind all the dirt….”
Becky could’ve bitten her tongue. The stranger was on the tallish side for a girl, and whipcord slim, but up close Becky could see the curves that were obvious even in the levis and vest she wore.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No problem,” the stranger’s voice was brusque. “Listen, could I speak to your mother?”
“My mother?” Becky was astonished.
“Well,” impatiently. “Your manager, then? Whomever the proprietor of this establishment is, if you don’t mind.”
Becky, about to proclaim herself the owner of “this establishment,” saw the stranger’s glance take in her apron and the kerchief protecting her hair, and realized that she had been mistaken for a serving girl of some sort. Her youthful looks had been the source of endless jokes in college, but she didn’t know now whether to be amused or irritated.
“I can rent you a room,” she said coolly.
“Well, good,” the stranger replied. “And I’ll need one for Tobias too.”
“My donkey? Right here behind me? I’ll need a place to bed him. And some decent grain, not much, but more than just grass clippings.” The woman enunciated now as if she suspected Becky to be a trifle slow, and Becky found her temper flaring.
“I don’t have a stable,” she said shortly. “You can lodge him down the road with Mrs. Johnston. She keeps goats and has a barn.”
“Goats?” The stranger ran a hand through her dark blonde locks and obviously bit back a comment. “Okay, which house is it?”
“The white one with the yellow trim. You can unload your stuff and I’ll take it up to your room in the meantime.”
The stranger frowned. “I don’t like to leave my bags unattended.”
Becky drew herself up to her full five-foot, five inches. “I can promise you they’ll be safe!” The stranger eyed her, still hesitating. That was the last straw. “If not, you can haul them all the way back here after you stable your donkey. I can lend you a wheelbarrow, make your trip easier,” she added sweetly, cherishing the mental picture of this rude stranger, pushing that rusty contraption loaded with her belongings, up the main road of Whistle Stop.
As if sensing her thoughts, the woman’s gaze narrowed. “No, that’s okay. I’ll take them up to the room myself now. If that’s okay,” she added, in a belated attempt at politeness.
“All right. Let me check you in.”
Behind the front desk, Becky pulled over the ledger. “That’ll be $70 a night, including breakfast, and I’ll need to see a credit card.”
“I’ll start out with three nights, and I’m going to pay in cash,” the woman said.
“It’s for a security deposit,” Becky explained.
“I’ll pay that in cash too,” was the reply.
Becky pursed her lips. “Okay, that’ll be $710 dollars, up front.”
Without a word, the woman peeled off the bills and handed them over.
“Okay, then I’ll just need you to fill out your name and address.” With the amount of mystery surrounding the woman, Becky was not surprised to see a post office box listed as her address. But she when she tried to make out the name….
“‘Yosemite Sam’?” Becky didn’t bother to hide her skepticism.
The stranger’s lips twitched. “That’s me.”
“Uh-huh. And I suppose that makes me Bugs Bunny!”
This time the stranger grinned outright, surprising Becky. “Well, Bunny, it’s good to meet you.” She grabbed Becky’s hand in a punishing grip and shook it. “I’m going to get my stuff.”
She disappeared out the front door, leaving Becky staring after her and wondering what it was that the latest wind had blown into Whistle Stop.
After Sam (an alias, obviously, but Becky couldn’t very well call her “stranger”) returned from boarding Tobias, she had asked Becky if there was a limit on the hot water, and then disappeared up to her room. Becky didn’t see her again until that evening, when a light step on the stairs announced her presence. Busy preparing her supper, Becky glanced up and got her third shock of the day.
This time she managed to bite back any comment, but something must’ve shown in her expression, because Sam glanced down at herself again, eyebrows raised. “What? Did I miss some mud somewhere?”
“No, no, actually, you look very nice,” Becky assured her, and turned around quickly to shove her pot pie into the oven, hiding the color she could feel creeping up her cheeks. It was amazing how well the stranger cleaned up. Free of dust, her honey-colored hair fell to her shoulders with a tendency to wave, and her tanned face with its full lips and firm chin were very attractive. Fine lines at the corners of those deep blue eyes made her look a little older than Becky had first guessed, or maybe it was just the result of long days in the sun. She wore a long-sleeved shirt with narrow blue stripes and a banded collar, open at the throat to reveal a fine silver necklace. Dark blue corduroy pants hugged the long legs, ending in a pair of black leather, narrow-toed Wellington boots.
Sam continued to hesitate at the doorway of the kitchen, and Becky looked at her inquiringly.
“Uh, I don’t suppose you serve dinner?” Her manner was softened, as if some of the rough edges had been washed away with the dirt. Becky shook her head.
“Only breakfast, I’m afraid. But the Whistle Stop Café across the street has excellent food.”
“Yes,” the woman glanced out the window and murmured, half under her breath, “I wasn’t looking forward to socializing. But I suppose I could grab a sandwich to take out….”
Becky hesitated, wondering if her chicken pot pie and salad could be stretched for two, when Sam seemed suddenly to make up her mind.
“Right, then. I’ll see you in a bit.” With a nod, she turned and headed out the front door.
With that comment about socializing, Becky expected to see Sam back almost immediately, certainly within the hour. But when two and then three hours passed without her return, Becky began to wonder. It would’ve been easy enough to cross the street and see if her guest was still there, but she was too embarrassed to do that. How would she explain her worrying?
Instead, she pulled out her sewing kit and a pile of blouses with loose buttons that she had been meaning to mend. It was close to midnight when she heard Sam’s footsteps on the path outside, negotiating the flagstones with the exaggeratedly careful tread of the well-lubricated. Becky swung open the door as the key was still fumbling in the lock.
“Whoa!” Sam nearly fell as the door gave way, holding onto the knob to keep herself upright. “You gotta give a woman warning when you do something like that, Bunny!”
Becky bit back a smile as she surveyed the flushed face of her guest. “Well, you decided to socialize after all, I see.”
The blonde woman regarded her solemnly. “Your friend Idgie serves some potent liquor, Bunny. I’ll bet it’s moonshine.”
Becky snorted. “I wouldn’t be surprised. Looks like she treated you to some of her private stock. You must’ve tipped pretty good.”
Sam made her way into the house carefully. “I am feeling no pain,” she agreed with a grin.
Becky followed her, shaking her head. “Can you make it up the stairs okay? Do you need a hand?”
“Well, one of us is walking a bit crooked. I’m not sure if it’s you or me, but I suspect it’s me. So some assistance would be appreciated.” The woman put her hand on Becky’s shoulder for support as they made their way over to the stairs. As they started the climb to the second floor Becky put her arm around Sam to steady her. The woman’s back felt soft and muscular at the same time, and Becky was disconcerted at the warmth she could feel beneath her palm through the thin shirt.
“Bunny?” The woman stopped halfway up the stairs and frowned at her. “You didn’t tell me you owned this place!”
“You didn’t ask,” Becky pointed out. “You just asked to speak to my mother.”
“Well, hell, you look about sixteen, so why would I assume you run a B&B? How old are you, anyway?”
“About ten years older than I look, apparently.” Becky gently urged her to keep climbing.
“Twenty-six?!” Sam stopped again at the top of the stairs and stared. “Good lord, I would never have guessed.”
“Thank you, I think. And how old are you?” They paused at the door to Sam’s room.
The woman grinned suddenly. “Old enough to be grateful I wasn’t having illegal thoughts!” she said, hooting in laughter even as she closed the door in Becky’s face.
Becky stood staring after her. When the implication of Sam’s comment finally sank in, she felt her cheeks burn. “Gonna have to talk to Idgie about the whiskey she serves,” she grumbled to herself, as she made her way to her own room, and a dream-filled sleep.
Becky felt shy about facing Sam the next morning after the comment of the night before, but she needn’t have worried. It didn’t seem as if the woman remembered much about it. She appeared at the breakfast table in a wrinkled t-shirt and gray sweatpants, eyes red and puffy. She sat down slowly and motioned to Becky for a cup of coffee.
Becky eyed her as she poured out a mug. “I guess you won’t be having the pork sausage, eggs and grits special,” she said.
Sam groaned and held her head carefully between her hands, as if afraid of jarring its contents. “Your sadistic streak is kept well-hidden, Bunny,” she whispered, voice like gravel.
Becky grinned. “Sorry.”
The older woman opened an eye and regarded her blearily. “Hmm, I’ll bet. Is that really this morning’s breakfast?”
“I can whip up just about any breakfast you want: pancakes, bacon, hash browns, cream-of-wheat, fruit, muffins or bagels, breakfast bar and protein drink…any of that appeal to you?”
Sam swallowed with difficulty. “Was a stomach pump among those choices?”
Becky took pity on her. “Would you like a suggestion?” The woman closed her eyes a moment and reopened them, which Becky took as assent. “My sure-fire hangover cure: herbal tea, lightly toasted wheat bread, no butter, and a couple of ibuprofen.”
A gleam of gratitude appeared in the blue eyes regarding her. “I think I can handle that.”
“Coming right up.”
While Becky prepared her breakfast, Sam sat quietly at the table with eyes closed, occasionally rubbing her temples. But once Becky placed everything before her and prepared to go, the woman reached out and grabbed Becky’s wrist. “Stay, please,” she requested.
“I thought maybe you’d prefer the quiet,” Becky said, aware of that very warm grip.
“No, I’d enjoy the company.” Sam released her. “If you have the time, that is. You probably have a lot of things to do.” She picked up her fork.
“Well, Sara’s back today, but I did need to catch up in the garden out back. I’m sure there’s time for another cup of coffee, though.” She refilled her mug and took a seat at the table.
“You can tell her to skip my room, it doesn’t need cleaning.”
Becky frowned. “We usually straighten up daily, even if it doesn’t need a full cleaning.”
“Not necessary. I don’t care if my bed is made or not, it just gets messed up again later.”
“But surely you want new towels?”
Sam sipped her tea and gave an appreciative murmur. “Good stuff. Towels? Well, yes, I suppose those would be welcome. And is there a laundry where I could take my clothes?”
Becky looked amused. “A laundry? You must think you’re in the big city. No, honey, people in Whistle Stop do their own laundry. But I can take care of that for you.”
Sam shook her head. “I’d rather do it—”
“You’d rather do it yourself,” Becky finished for her. “Naturally. Why don’t I just give you a washboard, a bar of soap, and point you in the direction of the creek?” There was a slight edge to her voice, and Sam stopped mid-chew, then swallowed.
“That would be just fine with me,” she said mildly. “Didn’t mean to be offensive.”
“You weren’t being offensive.” Becky sighed. “Just awfully independent. And sometimes that comes across as a bit…ungracious…to folks down south.”
“Ah, I see.” Sam nodded. “Been rubbing people the wrong way, no doubt. Very well, I would be grateful for some help with my laundry. Shall I drop them off with you?”
“I can come up and get it….”
“No, I don’t mind.” Sam grinned. “I’m not being standoffish, either. The ibuprofen has kicked in, your hangover cure has done its trick, and I’m feeling like a little exercise. I’ll drop it off on my way out. By the way, where’s the post office located?”
“It’s right on the main street, about half a mile that way.”
“Great.” She stood up, still a touch pale but looking much better. “Thanks for the breakfast…I’ll see you later.”
Sam was as good as her word, dropping off a towel-wrapped bundle a half-hour later, on her way out. There weren’t enough of Sam’s things to sort into proper wash loads, so Becky added them to her own laundry. For some reason it gave her a strange tingle to see Sam’s cotton bikini Jockeys mixed in with her own satin panties. She shook her head. “It’s been too long for you, Rebecca.”
It had been a long time. Not since college, in fact. It was tough in a small town like Whistle Stop. Not that there weren’t any attractive women…there were a few. And they had visitors passing through all the time. But taking over running the inn when her parents died had kept her well occupied these last few years. By the time she had finished grieving, she had become accustomed to her uncomplicated lifestyle.
When she finished hanging the laundry she took a hoe and attacked the waist-high weeds that had overcome her pansies, and were now threatening her sunflowers and squash vine. The sun was fierce, but the overturned soil was moist and rich with the smell of life. Butterflies and bees kept her company, along with the occasional beetle.
It was past noon by the time Becky finished, and she was glad to hang up her straw hat and fix herself a tuna sandwich. A glass of iced tea made a perfect accompaniment, sweetened just right, with a sprig of mint straight from the overgrown clump in her window box. She stood on the back porch, enjoying the sight of clean beds and neat rows, even though her back was aching.
When the laundry was dry, she pulled it off the line and proceeded to fold it. No doubt Sam would feel uncomfortable at that personalized touch, but it couldn’t be helped. Becky ignored the little tingle that returned as she smoothed out Sam’s flannel shirt and folded her underclothes into neat piles. She took the clean laundry up to Sam’s room, along with fresh towels. A knock on the door produced a muffled command to enter.
Sam had just taken a shower, and sat on the bed toweling her hair dry. She had on a white tank-style undershirt and a pair of men’s boxers, and looked very relaxed leaning back against the pillows, watching television. Becky made it a point to keep her eyes on Sam’s face, ignoring the report from her peripheral vision that Sam wasn’t wearing a bra.
“Oh, hey, you didn’t have to do that! You should’ve called me and I would’ve come down and gotten it.”
“You weren’t around,” Becky shrugged. “And I didn’t want the clothes to get wrinkled.”
“Well, thank you, anyway. I really appreciate it.” Sam jumped up and took the laundry basket from her, then proceeded to put her clothes away in the dresser. She waved a hand toward the bed. “Have a seat.”
As she passed, Becky caught a whiff of her soap and shampoo, a combination of sandalwood and vanilla that was strangely affecting. Becky recognized the strong attraction she was feeling for this woman, a woman she barely knew, and felt a bit uneasy.
“I shouldn’t stay, I have a dozen chores to do. I just came to drop off your laundry and,” her eyes scanned the room quickly, alighting on a grease-streaked towel bundled on the nightstand, “pick up the used towels.”
“No, that’s not—” Sam tried to stop her, but before she got there, Becky had grabbed the dirty towel to take with her. It was wrapped around something heavy, something which dropped back to the table with a thud.
“Oh!” Becky gasped and raised startled eyes to Sam.
Sam grimaced and shrugged. “Sorry. I was going to say that that towel’s not yours. It’s mine.” She took it from Becky’s unresisting fingers and wrapped the pistol in it.
“Do you have a permit for that?” Becky asked, in the silence that followed.
Sam looked amused. “What are you, a cop?”
“I’m not comfortable with firearms in my house.”
Sam snorted. “Give me a break! You Southerners have more guns than dogs have ticks!”
“Not in my house,” Becky said firmly. “What do you need that for, anyway?”
The blonde woman turned and placed the pistol in the top drawer of the dresser. “I need it for…my job.”
“You’re not a law enforcement officer.” Becky frowned.
Sam turned around and grinned. “What makes you so sure? Maybe I’m undercover.”
“Maybe I’m FBI, or CIA! A Russian spy, even. Maybe I’m a security guard at Wells Fargo.”
“Maybe you’re a syndicate hit-person.”
Sam laughed at that. “If I was I’d have a nicer piece than this cheap .380!”
Becky didn’t smile. “Well, it doesn’t matter. I’m afraid you can’t stay here if you’re going to carry a concealed weapon.”
“Hmm, but it’s not concealed anymore, is it?” the blonde woman asked with a smile.
Becky didn’t reply.
“Very well.” Sam’s voice was even. “I’ll cut short my stay and leave tomorrow instead. Does that suit you?”
Actually, it didn’t. Becky had been looking forward to getting to know this stranger better. But she wasn’t about to back down from the position she’d taken. “If that’s what you want,” she replied.
When Sam left for dinner that night, Becky watched as she walked across the street to the Whistle Stop Café. She wasn’t surprised when the hours passed and Sam didn’t return. This time, however, she didn’t wait up. “If she can’t make it up the stairs, she has only herself to blame,” Becky muttered to herself as she settled into bed. It seemed like only minutes later that the phone jangled her awake.
“What? Yes?” she said fuzzily, not recognizing the voice.
“I would appreciate it if you would reclaim your boarder.”
“Mrs. Johnston? Is that you?”
“It’s me, Rebecca. Your guest is in my barn. Scared the blazes out of me…I nearly shot her with Dan’s old shotgun!”
“You mean Sam? What is she doing in your barn?!” Becky was wide awake now.
“Right now she’s singing to that donkey of hers. Shall I call Grady?”
“No, I’m sure we don’t need the sheriff! Hold on, will you, Mrs. Johnston? I’ll come right over.” Becky pulled on the nearest thing at hand, a pair of jeans worn nearly white by repeated washings and a heavy quilted jacket over the t-shirt she slept in. She rushed down the street and was met at the front door by Mrs. Johnston, who was in her dressing gown, still holding the shotgun.
“She’s in the barn. Here, take this flashlight. From the sound of her, I’d say the girl’s had a bit of Idgie’s good stuff.”
Becky sighed. “Thanks, Mrs. Johnston. I’m awfully sorry about this.”
The older woman waved her away. “Brought a bit of excitement into my evening, I’ll give you that. You be careful, though. Let me know if you want me to call Grady.”
“That won’t be necessary, Mrs. Johnston. I’ll take care of things. You go back to bed.”
Becky made her way down to the barn. It was difficult to see even with the aid of the flashlight, and she wondered how Sam had found her way in the dark. If the idiotic woman had been serenading her donkey, she was no longer, because there was only the sound of crickets stopping and starting as Becky passed by. The barn door was ajar, and Becky entered cautiously. The air was warm with the breath and scent of goats. A couple of them rose at the sight of her flashlight, sticking their heads through the pen rails to investigate.
She was about whisper Sam’s name when she heard her voice coming from one of the stalls.
“You’re my buddy, aren’t you, Toby? My very best friend in the whole world. What would I do without you, huh?” She chuckled. “Besides carry all of my junk myself, I mean.”
Becky peered over the partition. The little gray donkey was standing quietly, head lowered, his owner sprawled next to him in the straw. She was crooning to the animal with her eyes half closed, occasionally reaching up to caress a long furry ear.
Sam squinted into the flashlight beam. “Bunny? Is that you?”
“What are you doing, Sam? Do you realize it’s the middle of the night? Mrs. Johnston nearly turned her shotgun on you!”
A derisive snort. “She wouldn’t have shot me, Bunny. Nearly killed me with her shadow, though.”
Becky sighed and walked around to the stall’s entrance. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“It was her dressing gown. And she had this weird sleeping scarf on her head. She was holding a lantern, and when she flung open the door her shadow was cast on that wall over there.” Sam pointed, and began to giggle. “I swear to God, I thought Batman had come to get me!”
Becky surveyed the giggling woman, hands on her hips. “I’m glad you think it’s funny! Poor Mrs. Johnston could’ve had a heart attack or something!”
“What about me? I nearly pee’d myself!” When Becky didn’t reply, Sam sobered a bit. “Don’t be mad at me, Bunny. I didn’t mean to scare her. I was just visiting my buddy Tobias here. I was trying to be quiet, but it was so dark….”
“It usually is at 1:00 a.m.,” Becky replied dryly. But something in Sam’s silence alerted her. “What happened? Did you knock something over?”
“Yeah,” in a small voice. “Me.” She tried to shift and winced. “Ow!”
In an instant Becky was kneeling next to her. “What happened? Did you hurt yourself?”
“I tripped on some damn cement wall and knocked over a bucket. Made a bit of a racket.”
“A wall?” Becky shone her flashlight around the large stall. In the corner stood a concrete trough, next to it an overturned bucket, and on the floor a few drops of blood. “Oh, Sam, did you cut yourself?” She directed the light back to the woman next to her. There was a scrape near her chin, but it wasn’t bleeding. “Let me see your arms and legs.”
Sam held them up obediently. “I banged my knee,” she reported, a bit like a kindergartner.
Becky’s lips twitched. “Did you? Let me see.” There was a rip in Sam’s trousers, right below her knee. Dried blood congealed over an obvious wound. “Ouch, that’s going to hurt once you’re sober.”
“It hurts now.”
“Well, it’ll get worse.”
“Gee, thanks,” sarcastically. “Any more good news?”
“You’ll need a tetanus shot.”
Sam groaned. “Your mean streak is showing again, Bunny. You must really hate me, huh?”
“My name’s not Bunny,” Becky replied.
“I know. It’s Becky. ‘Rebecca,’ according to Ruth. I think I like ‘Bunny’ better.”
“Because it goes along with ‘Yosemite Sam’?” Becky placed the flashlight on the floor so that it illuminated them, then reached down and tried to help Sam into a sitting position.
“Well, bunnies are very strokable, aren’t they?” Sam winked at her.
“How come you only say things like that to me when you’re drunk?”
Sam blinked, and to Becky’s surprise, her eyes dropped. “Sorry.”
“C’mon, let’s get you back home.”
It was a long journey back to the inn. Between Sam’s injury and her inebriated state, their progress was slow. Climbing the stairs was even slower, and Sam was obviously relieved to reach her room. She would’ve made straight for the bed, but Becky steered her toward the bathroom.
“Sit down, I think we’d better have a look at that cut.” She lowered the toilet seat cover as Sam struggled out of her pants. A bit of warm water and hydrogen peroxide on a towel cleaned the cut right up, although she had to put up with Sam’s exclamations and attempts to move away. “Hold still! I’m almost done, but you’re causing it to bleed again.”
“I’m causing it to bleed? I think it’s your scouring that’s causing it! Ow, that hurts!”
“My goodness, who’d have thought that such a butch woman would be such a baby!”
“What did you call me?” incredulously.
“You heard me.”
“Yes, but I’m beginning to doubt my sanity,” Sam muttered.
Becky wrapped a bandage around the wound. “That’s good enough for now. But you’d better see the doctor first thing tomorrow.” She helped Sam into bed, and turned to leave.
“Bunny? I mean, Becky?” Sam struggled to sit up.
“I…don’t really want to check out tomorrow.”
Becky came back and sat on the edge of Sam’s bed. “I don’t really want you to leave either,” she admitted.
“Look, what if I gave you the pistol to hold? You have a safe downstairs, you can keep it locked up till I leave. Would that be okay?”
Becky eyed her. “You won’t be needing it to defend the free world?”
Sam grinned. “I’ll use the bomb I have in my backpack.”
Becky covered her ears. “I don’t want to know! I’ll be forced to turn you in.”
Sam laughed. “Okay, no more dirty secrets.” She nodded toward the dresser. “You can take the gun with you now, if you like.”
Becky shook her head. “We’ll discuss things tomorrow, all right? It’s late and we’re both tired….”
“You think I’m too drunk to know what I’m saying, don’t you?” Sam asked accusingly. Becky smiled, but didn’t answer. “Well, I know perfectly well what I’m saying…and what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time now….”
Her voice trailed off as she leaned forward. She reached out and placed one hand on Becky’s shoulder, the other gently touching Becky’s cheek. Moving slowly, blue eyes questioning brown and finding encouragement. The kiss was soft and sweet, a tender exploration that left them both breathless.
“Will you stay?” Sam asked her.
Becky reached out to trace the full lips that were still red and moist from being pressed against hers. “Ask me again when you’re sober.” Sam was prepared to argue, but Becky pressed a finger against her lips. “Not tonight,” she said softly.
Sam conceded the point, but nipped the finger lightly before kissing it. “Not tonight,” she agreed huskily.
Becky had her hangover cure waiting the next morning when Sam came down to breakfast. With the scrape on her face and a pronounced limp, she looked even worse than she had the morning before. Becky watched as she sat down carefully and reached for the chamomile tea. Her “thank you” was a mere whimper.
“Is the overindulgence really worth the consequences?” Becky asked, though her smile was gentle.
Sam downed the ibuprofen with a sigh. “Well, I rarely overindulge.” She caught Becky’s raised brows. “Really,” she insisted. “What you’re seeing is the result of being away from civilized company for too long.”
“I thought you Yankees considered yourselves the inventors of civilization. At least in the big cities.”
“Bunny,” Sam replied in a fair imitation of Becky’s drawl, “us big city types are the least civilized of all!”
“Hmm.” Becky let that slide, and poured herself another cup of coffee. She sat down with her dish of oatmeal and fruit. “What have you got planned for today?” she asked Sam.
“Well, I thought I’d better take something over to apologize to Mrs. Johnston,” Sam said, embarrassed. “Before she tosses Toby out on his ear. Any suggestions?”
“Well, today’s not my baking day, unfortunately. You could take over some of my sunflowers, she likes those.”
“Thanks, I’ll take you up on that.”
“And you should stop by Doctor Hadley’s, have him take a look at the cut on your leg.”
Sam made a face. “I usually like to go to women doctors,” she said.
Becky put down her mug. “You’d have to go to Birmingham for that,” she said. “Doc Hadley’s all we have in Whistle Stop, but he’s a nice gentleman. Besides,” she added, a twinkle in her eye, “his nurse is female, and she’ll be the one to give you the shot.”
Sam eyed her narrowly. “Bunny, I do believe you take some pleasure in the thought of me going under that needle.”
Becky’s eyes opened wide. “Now why would I think a thing like that?”
“Oh, probably some hidden temperance leanings,” Sam replied dryly. “The idea of me paying for my sins and all.”
“Well, I suppose the only way to be sure you’ll remain sober is to feed you dinner myself.”
Sam looked surprised, then pleased. “Really?”
“Yes. Is there anything you won’t eat?” Sam’s smile grew slowly, and Becky flushed, realizing she’d left herself open for that one. “I mean, you’re not a vegetarian, or anything, are you?”
“No, I’m not a vegetarian.” Sam chewed her toast and gave the question some serious consideration. “Mm…I don’t care for lima beans…and I never developed an appreciation for organ meats – brains and sweetbreads and liver.”
“No limas, no parts. Gotcha. Anything else?”
She dusted the crumbs off her fingers. “Yeah. Is it just me, or do you generally find everything amusing?”
Becky laughed outright. “It’s just you,” she said, reaching across the table to squeeze her guest’s hand.
Sam grinned in response. “Well! If that’s the attitude you’re going to take, I’ll be on my way.” She pushed away from the table, and, chin in the air, pretended a huffy departure.
“Your dignified exit is somewhat spoiled by that limp,” Becky called after her. Sam pretended not to hear.
She stopped by on her way out, handing over her pistol and a box of bullet cartridges.
“Thank you,” Becky said quietly.
“Thank you,” the blonde woman replied. She stepped closer, sliding her arms around Becky and lowering her head. Their kiss was both a continuation of the night before, and a promise of things to come. “What time is dinner?” she asked softly.
“Six-thirty sharp,” Becky replied. “Don’t forget to take some flowers for Mrs. Johnston…oh, and would you mind returning her flashlight?”
Sam winced. “I guess not. But I hope she’s put away her shotgun.”
After she left, Becky went immediately to lock up the gun. She lay it on the front desk as she worked the combination to the safe behind the counter. She heard a whistle a moment later and looked up to see Sara, the college student who worked for her, staring at the pistol.
“Is that yours, Ms. Searles?”
“No, it belongs to our guest. I’m going to hold it for safekeeping.” She placed the gun in the safe and shut the door.
“It belongs to Sam?”
Becky looked at Sara carefully. “Yes, why?”
“Well,” the girl’s fair skin flushed. “She’s kinda strange, don’t you think?”
“Strange?” Becky asked, her tone casual. “In what way?”
Sara shrugged. “All that stuff in her room, for one thing. And did you ever try lifting one of her bags?”
“I thought I told you you didn’t have to vacuum her room.”
“I wasn’t vacuuming,” Sara denied indignantly. “I was just doing the bathroom like you told me. But her duffel bag was right in the walkway, so I had to move it on the side. Well, I tried to move it.” The willowy youngster shook her head and tucked a strand of auburn hair behind her ear. “I nearly fell over! It weighed a ton and clanked like it held tank parts.”
“Well, she probably has lots of camping equipment,” Becky said.
“I don’t think it’s just that, or she wouldn’t be so touchy about it,” Sara said.
“Uh-huh.” She leaned on the counter and lowered her voice. “I kind of teased her about it later, when I passed her in the hall. ‘Boy, you sure got some heavy bags,’ I said. And she gave me a look that near froze my marrow! ‘I’d appreciate it if my belongings weren’t disturbed,’ she said, in this really cutting tone. Made me feel like some kind of burglar, or something!” Sara rolled her eyes.
“Well, it’s probably best that we heed her wishes and not touch her things,” Becky advised the younger girl.
“No, ma’am,” Sara agreed. She bit her lip as she watched Becky head for her office. She hadn’t told her employer that her curiosity had extended to actually unzipping Sam’s bag and taking a quick peek inside. What she had seen had made her close it up again immediately. She’d been sheltered growing up in Whistle Stop, but going to college had opened her eyes – she knew trouble when she saw it. And that gun put a capper on things. She shivered and went to sweep off the front porch. The sooner this Sam character was out of their midst, the better she would feel.
Becky debated briefly over dinner, but eventually decided keep it simple. She picked up a plump young chicken from the butcher and pulled some tiny Yukon Gold potatoes out of the sawdust bin in her pantry. Roasting them together would be tasty. And as for vegetables, there was nothing like fresh from the garden.
Luckily, after three years the asparagus patch in the shady corner of her garden was finally putting forth some spears. There weren’t many, but it would be a nice accent with the meal. A few tomatoes – rich red cherries and a new yellow cherry variety with a slightly sweet flavor – as well as the tenderest leaves from her lettuce patch. She gathered a few herbs, oregano and thyme, and a stalk of lemon grass to flavor the chicken.
As she cleaned and seasoned the chicken and potatoes, she thought about her conversation with Sara. She was more disturbed than she wanted to admit about Sam’s secrecy. The woman was unusually sensitive about her privacy, but perhaps a casual question or two at dinner would not be amiss.
When the chicken was in the oven, Becky tossed the tomatoes together with a drizzle of olive oil and her favorite balsamic vinegar, then arranged them over the lettuce. The asparagus she would serve lightly steamed, with just a touch of lemon juice. She wondered whether she should stay away from alcohol, then decided that a glass of wine wouldn’t hurt.
The chicken was browning nicely, filling the kitchen with mouthwatering smells of herbs and garlic. Becky added the potatoes, and then went to take a bath while the dinner was finishing. She normally took a shower, but today felt like being extravagant. A long soak in the hot water would relax her muscles after all the activity.
She filled the tub halfway, added a couple of drops of bath oil, and slowly eased herself in. A small sigh escaped her – it was heaven. She stretched out and her breasts bobbed to the surface, the waterline lapping around her nipples. The liquid caress was amplified by her sensuous mood, her skin responding to every sensation. She thought of Sam and the kisses they had shared, then watched as her nipples grew firm and extended into the cooler air.
Becky closed her eyes, inhaling the steamy scented air, and fought the urge to touch herself. She lifted her knees out of the water and spread her legs slightly, till the waterline could lap at the sensitive place between them. An undulation of her body was enough to stir the water against her clit, a satiny, barely-felt friction that caused her breathing to increase and her labia to swell. Then, with a groan, she ceased her movements and sat up.
She had never been shy about providing her body with physical release when it was needed; she believed that self-pleasuring was a healthy and desirable practice, whether one was in a relationship or not. But she also cherished the anticipation she was feeling, the knowledge of what was to come adding a keen edge to her arousal. She decided not to defuse it.
Instead, she allowed those thoughts to linger as she slowly ran a soapy washcloth over her skin, as she drained the tub and rinsed off with a cooling shower, as she dabbed the moisture from her body with a soft white towel. She wrapped the bath towel around her and went into the bedroom. What to wear? Something comfortable, she decided, donning a simple red blouse and matching skirt. The pleats flattered her figure, and the rich color set off her dark chestnut hair and fair skin. It was more formal than what she usually wore for dinner, but not inappropriate, since she had company this evening.
Back in the kitchen she finished the meal preparations and began setting the table. She heard the front door open, and a moment later Sam appeared. Becky gave an exclamation of surprise.
“What have you been doing? You look nearly as bad as the day I met you!”
Sam’s grin was apologetic. “I know, I’m sorry. I was helping Mrs. Johnston clean out her barn, and got kind of sweaty.” Her glance took in Becky’s attire. “Wow, you look great!” She sniffed. “And something smells great! Is that you or the food?”
“It’s 5:54 p.m.,” she responded dryly.
“Oops, half an hour, huh? Plenty of time!” Sam turned sharply and made for the stairs, leaving bits of straw behind her.
Becky smiled and shook her head. The woman was irrepressible. She laid out her mother’s china, and added a vase full of garden mums, yellow, orange and purple blossoms to brighten up the table. It was just a minute after six-thirty when she heard Sam’s quick tread on the stairs.
“I made it!” she declared triumphantly, standing in the doorway, hair still slightly damp from her shower.
“Very nice,” Becky agreed, taking in her western-cut shirt and indigo blue denims. “Seems as though your knee isn’t bothering you either.”
“Well, it loosened up as I was working in the barn,” Sam admitted. “But something tells me my whole body is gonna be stiffening up tomorrow!”
Becky smiled and motioned for her guest to take a seat. She set out the salad plates and sat down. “So you decided to give Mrs. Johnston a hand? Oh wait, I forgot the water.”
“I’ll get it.” Sam stood up quickly and retrieved a pitcher of iced water from the fridge.
“The wine too, if you don’t mind.”
“Pinot Gris, huh? No, I definitely don’t mind.” She poured out a glass for each of them. “Mmm. This is good,” Sam said, tucking into the tomatoes. “I was starving.”
“Cleaning a barn is hard work,” Becky agreed with amusement. “Probably don’t do much of that in the city.”
“You can say that again. But after the trouble I caused, I thought it would be prudent to give Mrs. Johnston a hand.”
“I’m sure she appreciated it,” Becky said. “And did you stop by Doc Hadley’s?”
Sam snorted softly. “Yes, mother, I did. And you’ll be disappointed to hear that I didn’t need a tetanus shot.”
“Nope. Seems the one I got three years ago is still effective. He did put a couple of stitches in the wound, though.” She grinned at the look Becky sent her. “Yes, I know – no more late night visits for me.”
Becky took their empty plates and brought over the rest of the food. Sam whistled and eyed the spread appreciatively. “You’re quite an accomplished woman, Bunny. I keep discovering new talents of yours all the time.”
Becky took a sip of her wine. “There are a few you haven’t seen yet,” she said.
Sam lifted her own glass in a salute. “I’m looking forward to it,” she replied softly.
Halfway through the meal, Becky decided to risk a casual question. “So where did you find Tobias?”
“Toby?” Sam smiled fondly. “Well, he was the result of a wild burro rescue.”
“Yes. He wasn’t even born when they did the helicopter round-up in Death Valley National Park. His mom was one of the few female burros rescued, and when he was born in the spring I picked him up at auction. We’ve been pals ever since.”
“But what made you buy a donkey in the first place?”
Sam’s eyes narrowed in a way Becky was beginning to recognize. “Well,” she drawled, “I thought it was only fitting that Yosemite Sam have a donkey.”
“And why the name ‘Yosemite Sam,’ anyway?”
Sam seemed to withdraw a little. “Why so curious all of a sudden?”
Becky put down her fork and reached across the table. “I’d like to get to know you better,” she replied, her expression serious. “But you haven’t even told me your real name.”
Sam looked down at the hand resting on her arm. “I thought we were getting to know each other better. In fact,” she raised Becky’s hand and gently kissed the back of her knuckles, “I think it’s getting better all the time.”
Becky tilted her head as she considered that. “If you would like to continue getting to know me better,” she answered at last, “you might consider being a touch more forthcoming about yourself.”
Disbelief warred with anger and amusement in Sam’s expression. She released Becky’s hand. “Did you just say what I think you said?”
“I don’t sleep with strangers,” Becky replied, and braced herself. Fortunately, the amusement won out. Sam burst out laughing.
“That’s the first time a woman has ever told me, ‘Come clean or you’re not getting any!’” She shook her head. “Ultimatum as foreplay,” she murmured. “Who’d’ve thought it would be so…intriguing?”
When Sam finally looked up, there was a gratifying touch of respect in her eyes, along with something that made Becky shiver.
“All right,” she said. “What do you want to know?”
“Your real name, for starters.”
Sam reached over to refill their wine glasses. “It’s Samantha. Sam for short, obviously. Samantha Kern.”
“And the ‘Yosemite’?”
“That’s where I’m from. Well, near there. Mariposa, to be specific.”
“So you live in California?” Sam nodded. “How old are you and what do you do?”
“I’m thirty-six years old. Ten years older than you,” she said, making a face. “And as for what I do….” she hesitated. “Promise not to laugh?”
“Well, I’m a pharmaceuticals representative.”
Becky’s jaw dropped. “A salesperson?”
“For a drug company,” Sam confirmed.
“But…what are you doing in Whistle Stop?”
“I’m on vacation, actually. I took advantage of a convention in Birmingham to schedule an extra two weeks off and do a bit of exploring. It’s a hobby of mine,” she added. She grinned at Becky’s dazed expression. “What’s wrong?”
“Well, I just never would’ve guessed you’d be in that line of work,” she said.
“A little too conventional?” Sam asked dryly.
Becky’s blush gave her away.
“Well, you’re right, it’s not the most exciting job in the world. But I have other interests to keep me sane.” She wiped her mouth and put down her napkin. “Bunny?”
“Do you have to know my whole past…before you’ll allow me a part of your future?” Sam’s blue gaze was direct…and warm.
It was enough for now, Becky decided. “No,” she answered softly. “Would you kiss me, please?”
Sam leaned over and they exchanged a kiss which escalated quickly in intensity. Becky could taste the wine on Sam’s lips. She drew back and stood. “Shall we go upstairs?”
Sam nodded. “What about the food?”
Becky looked at the table and sighed. “I suppose I’d better put the leftovers away,” she said. “How come in the romance novels the heroines get carried up the stairs in a wave of passion?”
Sam chuckled. “I’ll carry you up if you like,” she offered. “But first we put the food away.”
In the end, Becky refused to allow Sam to carry her up the stairs.
“I don’t care how strong you are, you have an injured knee,” she said. “I’m not taking the chance on us tumbling down like Jack and Jill.”
“The woman has no romance in her!” Sam announced to no one in particular.
Becky eyed the taller woman. “Oh, I’ve got romance in me,” she said. “And if you’d stop wasting time complaining, you’d find out just how much! Now, which room?”
“My room,” Sam said promptly.
“Your room it is.”
Once inside, Becky expected to be led to the bed, but Sam locked the door and leaned against it.
“Something wrong?” Becky asked.
Sam shook her head. “No, everything’s wonderful,” she answered softly. “I just wanted to slow things down a bit.” She gathered Becky into her arms and buried her face in the fragrant chestnut hair. She moved her mouth gently down her hairline, across her forehead and over her temple, down her cheek and along her jaw. Soft kisses and nibbles, and Sam murmured in pleasure.
Becky stood with her eyes closed, feeling the strength of Sam’s arms around her, the warmth of her lips over her face. It was more reassuring than arousing, and she began to relax against the older woman. “One last thing, Bunny,” Sam said.
“Yes?” Becky pulled back to look her in the eye.
“I want you to know that I’m…’safe.’ I was in a monogamous relationship for two years, and I haven’t been with anyone since we broke up four months ago.” She hesitated. “You didn’t ask, but I didn’t want you to worry—”
Becky shook her head. “I should have asked. I’m not very experienced at this sort of thing…it never occurred to me!” As Sam continued to look at her expectantly, she flushed. “Oh, I’m sorry. No, I don’t have any diseases either. It’s been years for me,” she admitted. “Not since college.”
“Well,” Sam bent down and lifted Becky into her arms, “we have a lot of time to make up for, then.” She carried Becky over to the bed and put her down gently.
“It would be easier for me to get undressed standing up first,” Becky suggested.
Sam removed their shoes and lay her long body down next to Becky’s. Her smile was downright evil. “Easier? Did you think, after all the hoops I’ve had to jump through, that you were going to get off easy? Oh no, my little cotton-tailed friend, it’s definitely not going to be easy on you!”
She reached over and began to unbutton Becky’s low-cut blouse. As each button popped through, Sam stopped to kiss her – long, lingering kisses that made it hard for Becky to breathe. Her fingers slipped through the opening in Becky’s shirt, barely touching the skin beneath, slowly parting the silky fabric. At last the blouse was open, and Sam stopped to admire the black lace brassiere that was revealed, along with the breasts they cupped so lovingly. She ran a finger lightly over each peak, watching in interest as Becky’s nipples responded to the stimulation. She bent to kiss the stiffened nubs, and then nibbled on them gently.
“Let’s take your top off,” Sam suggested. She assisted Becky in removing her blouse and bra, then lay her back against the pillows. To Becky’s delight, Sam removed her own shirt and bra, revealing a smooth muscular torso, and firm breasts tipped with pink nipples. “I want to feel you against me,” she said.
“Yes, please,” Becky agreed breathily.
Sam leaned over her and Becky moaned at the feel of warm skin rubbing against her. They began to kiss again, and Becky grew lost in the sensation of soft lips and textured tongue. Then those lips began a slow descent to Becky’s breasts, where they lingered, licking and sucking gently. Little lightening bolts of pleasure shot from Becky’s nipples throughout all the nerves in her body, setting fires as they passed.
Sam’s hands reached up under her skirt, the fingertips gliding lightly over her legs. She eased down the black satin panties Becky wore, murmuring appreciatively over their flimsiness. “Matching lingerie…for me?” she asked with a grin.
“Who else?” Becky retorted.
“Mmm, I’ll have to get you to model them for me later.” To Becky’s surprise, Sam’s hands didn’t return to touch her, nor did she make an effort to remove her skirt. Instead, she rolled over, pulling the smaller woman atop her. The kissing resumed, with Sam reaching around to caress her shoulders and stroke her back. Becky’s whole body was heating up, and she felt very naked beneath her skirt, which she suspected was Sam’s intention.
“Touch me,” she whispered to the woman beneath her.
“I am touching you,” Sam protested. “And enjoying it very much, I might add.” She reached up to cup Becky’s face, stroking her cheeks with her thumbs, letting her fingers tangle in the chestnut curls and tickle the nape of her neck.
“You know what I mean,” Becky said, gradually realizing the torment Sam had in mind.
Sam clicked her tongue. “My, my, impatient, aren’t we? Why are you in such a rush, Bunny? Haven’t you ever heard the tale about the tortoise and the hare? Oops,” she put a hand over her mouth. “No offense intended.”
In spite of her state of arousal, Becky was hard pressed not to smile. “Very funny. Haven’t you ever heard the saying, ‘The early bird gets the worm’?”
Sam shifted her leg till it was pressing up against Becky’s mons, and began to move against her subtly. “Bird? Worm? No mention of a pussy in there?” Becky groaned as the sudden pressure against her clit increased the throbbing between her legs. Sam continued as if she hadn’t heard. “Besides, I think timing is more important than speed. What about, ‘A stitch in time saves nine’?”
Becky grasped Sam’s shoulders firmly. “How about, ‘She who hesitates is lost’?” she managed through gritted teeth.
“Oh, good point,” Sam agreed, her eyes alight with mischief. She reached down suddenly and lifted the hem of Becky’s skirt, baring her to the waist. Becky gasped, first at the feel of cool air against her bottom, then at the warmth of Sam’s hands. Sam cupped her buttocks firmly, kneading the heated flesh, pulling her even closer. Becky’s head dropped down to Sam’s shoulder, and Sam was able to whisper into her ear. “I just want to make sure you’re ready for me, sweetheart. I want you hot, swollen, and incredibly wet.”
Becky groaned. The pulling and squeezing of her cheeks was causing her innermost parts to open and close and rub slickly together in their own lubrication. Becky sought out Sam’s mouth, nipping at her full lower lip and tongue in increasing passion.
“Yes, ohhh,” she gasped, as she felt herself being slowly penetrated from behind.
“Do you like my fingers? Or shall I use my mouth?” Sam wanted to know, rocking her gently.
“Don’t stop,” was Becky’s instruction.
“Right – fingers first, tongue later.” Sam continued their kiss, fingers slipping in and out of her, rubbing her leg against Becky’s clit. The undulating rhythm was not quite enough stimulation, and suddenly Becky was riding Sam’s thigh, hips plunging up and down urgently as she neared her climax.
“Oh, god!” Becky came with a long, low moan, and collapsed upon her lover. Sam continued to stroke her body and whisper reassuringly in her ear. When her breathing finally quieted, Sam chuckled.
“I see now how you got your nickname, Bunny,” she said.
Becky rolled over onto the bed and tucked herself beneath Sam’s arm. She began to unfasten Sam’s denims. “It was you that gave me that ridiculous nickname, as you well know,” she growled. “But I want to bring to your attention one little aphorism you missed: ‘She who laughs last, laughs best.’”
“What do you mean?” Sam looked alarmed.
“Just that it’s your turn next, and your fate is in my hands. Or should I say ‘paws’?” This time, it was Becky’s smile that was evil.
Becky slept later than she intended to the next morning. When she finally awoke, she lay looking at the sleeping woman next to her. Sam lay sprawled in utterly relaxed slumber, piercing blue eyes closed and shaded by long honey-colored lashes. After the passion they had shared for most of the night, Becky wasn’t surprised not to be up at dawn, but she knew she should return to her room. She placed a kiss on Sam’s mouth before leaving. “Thank you,” she whispered, careful not to wake her.
In the hall, she ran into Sara. The younger woman’s eyes opened wide at the sight of her employer leaving Sam’s room. Becky thought briefly about making some excuse, but decided against it. She and Sam were both adults, and so, for that matter, was Sara. Instead she smiled, and continued down the hall as if there was nothing unusual about leaving a guest’s room in a wrinkled skirt at eight o’clock in the morning.
Becky was more alert after a quick shower, but her muscles gave little twinges. Still, it was a good ache, accompanied by a sense of satisfaction and well-being that made her feel like singing. She decided to serve Sam breakfast in bed, and quickly threw together some French toast and melon slices, along with a lean slice of ham. Sara came in just as she was finishing the tray, and at the sight of it the girl bit her lip.
“Ms. Searles, I have something I need to tell you.”
“Can it wait? I’m about to take breakfast up to Sam.”
“I think it’s better if I tell you now.”
Becky noticed the uncomfortable expression on Sara’s face and sighed. She took a seat at the table and motioned for Sara to do the same. Sara shook her head. “It’ll only take a moment.”
Becky looked at her expectantly, and Sara flushed. “I have a confession to make, Ms. Searles.”
“Well, the other day when I was cleaning…I sort of…looked in Sam’s bag.”
Becky frowned. “You did what?”
“I sort of looked in—”
“Sara! I can’t believe you did such a thing. Do you realize what a terrible invasion of privacy that is? If you were working in a hotel they’d fire you for that!”
“Yes, ma’am, I know,” she said unhappily. “I understand if you want to let me go. But I’ve never done it before, and I swear I didn’t touch anything!”
“That’s not the point!” Becky said sternly. “It’s a question of trust.”
“I shouldn’t have done it,” Sara agreed, hanging her head. “And I promise I’ll never do anything like that again!”
Becky sighed. “All right. And what’s the bad news?”
“I’m sure you wouldn’t be making this confession unless you saw something you wanted to tell me about. So what is it?”
Sara shuffled her feet. “Well, I wasn’t going to say anything, but it seems like you…like her a little….” she trailed off and looked at Becky uncertainly.
Becky’s eyebrow rose. “You’re right,” she said evenly. “I like her a lot.”
“Yes, well,” Sara hurried on, “then I just thought I should warn you….” She hesitated.
“I think Sam’s a drug addict!”
Becky let go of the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. “Honey, you had me worried! I can explain that…Sam is a sales representative for a drug company. She has to carry around all kinds of pills and—” she broke off as she saw Sara shaking her head.
“No, ma’am, not those kinds of drugs! Illegal drugs!”
“What are you talking about?”
“It wasn’t pills I saw! It was eyedroppers, and vials, and tweezers, packets of powder, a butane stove—”
“All of those could still be because of her profession,” Becky interrupted. “And the stove was for camping, obviously.”
“And a gram scale,” Sara finished. “Ms. Searles, one of my roommates in college used to cook and sell drugs…she had all of those things, too.”
Becky felt a sinking in her stomach. She stood up and picked up the tray. “Thank you for letting me know, Sara.”
“What are you going to do?”
Becky lifted her chin and headed for the stairs. “I’m going to ask Sam if it’s true.”
Sam was just stirring as Becky entered the room, and she smiled lazily upon seeing Becky with the tray.
“Well, this is a nice surprise!”
Becky placed the tray on the nightstand and sat on the bed. “I figured it was time you had something more for breakfast than toast and ibuprofen.”
“Mmm, you’re right about that,” Sam agreed. She hopped out of bed and padded naked over to the bathroom. Becky watched in appreciation and felt a stirring in her groin. A few minutes later Sam returned, and put on a terry cloth robe. She leaned over to give Becky a long kiss.
“You brushed your teeth!” Becky said, when she drew back a few moments later.
“Well, you went and had a shower,” Sam pointed out with a grin. “I figured it was the least I could do.”
“You nut,” Becky said fondly. “But thank you all the same.” She hesitated as Sam sat on the bed and looked over her breakfast with interest. “Um, before you start eating, could we talk first?”
“Oh-oh, the dreaded ‘morning after’ talk,” Sam replied. “All right – yes, I came. Three times. How about you?”
“That’s not what I was going to ask!” Becky said, blushing furiously. Then, as Sam continued to look at her with raised brows, she muttered, “I wasn’t counting. Several times.”
Sam grinned in satisfaction and lay back against the pillows. “Okay, what did you want to talk about?”
Becky took a deep breath. “Sara opened one of your bags and looked inside.”
“The dickens she did! It’s a good thing I keep my valuables locked up,” Sam muttered, shaking her head.
The blonde woman looked annoyed, but not unduly upset. Becky ventured further. “She told me what she found.”
“Oh?” Sam’s eyebrows rose, but her voice was noncommittal. “And what exactly was that?”
With some hesitation, Becky repeated the conversation. In the pause that followed, Becky asked, “Sam? Do you use drugs?”
After a short silence, Sam began to chuckle. She glanced at Becky’s surprised expression, and the chuckle turned into laughter. Soon, she was rolling on the bed in uncontrollable mirth. After several moments passed without respite, Becky had had enough. She stood up, picked up a glass of water from the breakfast tray, and emptied half of its contents on the prostrate woman. Sam’s laughter ended in sputters and a dampened glare.
“Hey, what’d ya do that for!”
Becky crossed her arms and gazed down at the older woman. “I’m not joking, Sam. I want an answer. Was Sara telling the truth, or not?”
Sam dabbed at her face with the sleeve of her robe. “Your nosy little employee is accurate in what she saw, Bunny. But she misinterpreted what those things were for. Although,” she mused, “I could see why she made the mistake. It does look pretty incriminating. Particularly when you’re dealing with an unsavory type like me….” The giggles began again, and threatened to erupt into another paroxysm of laughter. Becky picked up the glass of water.
“No, no, stop!” Sam held up her hands entreatingly, the giggles subsiding. “No more water…I’ll tell you everything you want to know!”
“I’m not a drug addict, Bunny. I’m a prospector.”
Her jaw dropped. “A prospector? You mean – like a mining-for-gold kind of prospector?”
Sam nodded. “Except I don’t really mine for it, I dredge.”
Becky lowered herself unsteadily into the nearby chair. “I don’t believe it.”
“Here, let me show you.” Sam climbed out of bed and unzipped her duffel bag. She held it open so that Becky could see a long machine, which looked like an oversized scuba diver’s tank, attached to a large hose. She held up the end of the hose. “This part goes into the water, along with me,” Sam added with a grin, “and it vacuums up gravel and silt and soil…and hopefully some gold. The water and debris flows out the other end, and over some riffle pans.” Here, she picked up her backpack and took out some plastic trays. She held up a round pan that had ridges along one side. “Sometimes I pan for it as well.”
“And have you found any?” Becky asked faintly.
Sam shrugged. “Only placer gold. Maybe a couple of bigger nuggets.”
“That’s what they call the flakes.” She opened yet another canvas bag, the one Sara must’ve peeked into, and pulled out a small wooden box. Unlocking it, she lifted a vial which still contained a bit of water, and Becky could see the small flakes of yellowish metal which spun wildly as Sam shook it.
“So all that stuff in your bags…”
“Is to dredge for, separate, store, and weigh the gold,” Sam finished for her.
“That’s why you get so dirty?”
“Lying in a stream bed is nice and cool, but it does cause the dust to stick,” the other woman agreed.
“And this is a hobby of yours.”
Sam grinned. “You say that like your suspect my sanity, Bunny. Surely there are worse ways to entertain oneself.”
“But…why all the mystery, Sam?” Becky let her frustration show.
Sam snorted. “Are you kidding? There are a lot of strange people out there, Bunny. And something about gold just seems to bring out the worst in folk.”
“And the gun…”
“Is for protection,” Sam confirmed. “Fortunately, I’ve never had to use it. But I spend days in pretty wild surroundings sometimes, and I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
Becky shook her head. She wasn’t sure what to say. Sam put the equipment back in her bags, and came over to where the younger woman was sitting. She pulled her up and into a warm embrace. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. I had no idea you were worrying about this stuff.”
Becky buried her face in Sam’s shoulder, inhaling her comforting scent. “No, I’m sorry,” she replied. “I should’ve trusted you.”
“Naw, you didn’t really know me,” Sam said. “I’d rather you be cautious, anyway.” She tipped Becky’s chin up and gave her a long kiss. “I…do have some bad news to bring up, however.”
Becky braced herself. “Yes?”
“I have to go back to work in a couple of days.” She nodded at Becky’s crestfallen expression. “Yeah, I feel the same way myself.”
About to reply, Becky heard Sam’s stomach rumble and laughed. “Poor you! Let’s talk over breakfast, okay?”
“I’d thought you’d never ask,” Sam said gratefully.
They sat on the bed and shared the tray, though Becky could only pick at the food. She had lost her appetite at the thought of Sam’s leaving. For her part, Sam ate like she’d been starved for days. She paused at the sight of Becky’s amused expression, and grinned. “Good sex makes me hungry,” she explained.
“I love you,” Becky replied.
Sam looked very serious, and put down her fork. “I love you, too,” she said quietly.
“Now, I don’t mean that I’m necessarily in love with you,” Becky continued quickly. “Although I think in time I could be.” She looked into Sam’s eyes, willing her not to misunderstand. “I mean, in the short time we’ve known each other, I like you very much. I’m attracted to you…and I feel affection for you. I love you as a person,” she finished lamely.
“I know what you meant,” Sam said with a gentle smile. “And I feel the same way. I think we have something very special here, and I’d like to keep it going.”
“You mean, ‘long-distance’?” Becky asked her tone more plaintive than she knew.
Sam made a face. “It would be hard, I know. But I could make trips to Whistle Stop…and you could visit Mariposa. Or….” her voice trailed off.
“Or?” Becky prompted.
“You could come to California with me,” Sam said.
“You mean…to live?”
“But…leave Whistle Stop? What about my business? I’d have to sell the inn….What about my friends?”
“I don’t think you should sell Becky’s B&B, at least not right away,” Sam replied quietly. “You could get someone to run it for you, couldn’t you?”
“I suppose,” Becky said bewilderedly.
“And as for your friends…well, I know that’ll be tough. But you could make friends in California, too. I have lots of people I want to introduce you to,” Sam said.
“I’m sure I would love your friends,” Becky said, touched. “But what would I do?”
“Anything you want to,” Sam replied. “Although you’d still have money coming in from the inn. And I make a decent living, so there’s no worry there. I know it’s a hard thing I’m asking, so I want you to think about it, okay?”
Becky nodded, overwhelmed.
“And sweetheart?” Becky looked up. “Did you ever see the movie, ‘Desert Hearts’?”
Becky frowned. “Ye-es…why?”
“Remember the part at the end, where Vivian asks Cay to go with her? I’ll say the same to you: ‘If it didn’t please you, you wouldn’t have to stay.’ Whatever you decide,” Sam concluded, “this is not the end.”
Becky felt tears prick her at her eyes. “Thank you, my love.”
It was the clip-clop sound of hooves that brought Becky to the window of her B&B five days later. The past couple of days before Sam’s departure had been filled with feverish loving, with barely a moment apart, and still they seemed to pass in no time at all.
In contrast, the last three days without her seemed to drag by as if covered in molasses. She missed her terribly, and continued to agonize over her decision. She still didn’t know if she had made the right choice. But sometimes only the passage of time could illuminate those moments, when one could look back and see with crystal clarity whether one had taken the right fork in the road of life’s journey.
She smiled as she spied Mrs. Johnston riding by on Tobias. I hope I can still climb a donkey when I’m her age, she thought fondly, watching as the gentle gray burro made its way up Main Street.
“Giving him his exercise, I see,” she called out to the spry old lady.
“He’s giving me mine!” Mrs. Johnston retorted, managing to sit astride with dignity. “I sure am going to miss him when the trailer comes to pick him up.”
“Sam will be back, and so will Tobias,” Becky assured her.
“And what about you, my girl?” Mrs. Johnston asked. “I see you’ve got your sign up.”
Becky glanced over to the sign in her front yard which had bid guests welcome for so many years, and the new lettering which announced “Under New Management” beneath it.
“Oh, I’ll be back, too,” she assured her. “Idgie and Ruth have agreed to manage things while I’m in California, but this is still my home. I’ve got my roots in this town.”
“Them Whistle Stop roots run deep,” Mrs. Johnston intoned wisely, nodding in approval. Becky smiled and nodded in agreement.
A careful observer would’ve noticed that a certain gray donkey was also nodding gently as he walked. And why not? After all, it was Tobias’s story by right.