He needed a woman. Bad.
Wolf Mackenzie spent a restless night, with the bright full moon throwing its silver light on the empty pillow beside him. His body ached with need, the sexual need of a healthy man, and the passing hours only intensified his frustration. Finally he got out of bed and walked naked to the window, his big body moving with fluid power. The wooden floor was icy beneath his bare feet but he welcomed the discomfort, for it cooled the undirected desire that heated his blood.
The colourless moonlight starkly etched the angles and planes of his face, living testimony to his heritage. Even more than the thick black hair worn long to touch his shoulders, even more than the heavy-lidded black eyes, his face proclaimed nun Indian. It was in his high, prominent cheekbones and broad forehead, his thin lips and high-bridged nose. Less obvious, but just as fierce, was the Celtic heritage from his father, only one generation removed from the Scottish Highlands. It had refined the Indian features inherited from his mother into a face like a blade, as clean and sharply cut as it was strong. In his veins ran the blood of two of the most warlike peoples in the history of the world, Comanche and Celt. He had been a natural warrior, a fact soon discovered by the military when he had enlisted.
He was also a sensualist. He knew his own nature well, and though he controlled it, there were times when he needed a woman. He usually visited Julie Oakes at those times. She was a divorced woman, several years older, who lived in a small town fifty miles distant. Their arrangement had lasted five years; neither Wolf nor Julie was interested in marriage, but both had needs, and they liked each other. Wolf tried not to visit Julie too often, and he took care that he was never seen entering her house; he accepted the fact, unemotionally, that her neighbours would be outraged if they knew she slept with an Indian. And not just any Indian; a rape charge stuck to a man forever.
The next day was a Saturday. There would be the normal chores, and he had to pick up a load of fencing materials in Ruth, the small town just at the base of his mountain, but Saturday nights were traditionally for howling. He wouldn't howl, but he'd visit Julie and bum off his sexual tension in her bed.
The night was turning colder, and low heavy clouds were moving in. He watched until they obscured the moon, knowing they meant new snow. He didn't want to return to his empty bed. His face was impassive, but his loins ached. He needed a woman.
Mary Elizabeth Potter had numerous small chores to occupy her time that Saturday morning, but her conscience wouldn't let her rest until she had talked to Joe Mackenzie. The boy had dropped out of school two months before, a month before she had arrived to take the place of a teacher who had abruptly quit. No one had mentioned the boy to Mary, but she'd run across his school record, and curiosity had led her to read it. In the small town of Ruth, Wyoming, there weren't that many students in school, and she had thought she'd met them all. In fact, there were less than sixty students, but the graduation rate was almost one hundred percent, so any dropout was unusual. When she had read Joe Mackenzie's record, she'd been stunned. The boy had been at the top of his class, with straight A's in all subjects. Students who did poorly would get discouraged and drop out, but every teaching instinct she had was outraged that such an outstanding student would just quit. She had to talk to him, try to make him understand how important it was to his future that he continue his education. Sixteen was so young to make a mistake that would haunt him the rest of his life. She wouldn't be able to sleep at night until she had done her best to talk him into returning.
It had snowed again during the night and had turned bitterly cold. The cat meowed plaintively as it wound around her ankles, as if complaining about the weather. "I know, Woodrow," she consoled the animal. "The floor must be cold to your feet." She could sympathize. She didn't think her feet had been warm since she had moved to Wyoming.
Before another winter came, she promised herself, she would own a pair of warm, sturdy boots, fur-lined and waterproof, and she would stomp about in the snow as if she'd been doing it all her life, like a native. Actually she needed the boots now, but the expenses of moving had wiped out her cash reserves, and the teachings of her thrifty aunt prevented her from buying the boots on credit.
Woodrow meowed again as she put on the warmest, most sensible shoes she owned, the ones she privately called her "old maid schoolteacher shoes." Mary paused to scratch behind his ears, and his back arched in ecstasy. She had inherited him with the house, which the school board had arranged for her to live in; the cat, like the house, wasn't much. She had no idea how old Woodrow was, but both he and the house looked a little run-down. Mary had always resisted owning a cat—it seemed the crowning touch to an old maid's life—but finally her fate had caught up with her.
She was an old maid. Now she owned a cat. And wore old maid shoes. The picture was complete.
"Water seeks its own level," she told the cat, who looked back at her with his unconcerned Egyptian gaze. "But what do you care? It doesn't hurt you that my personal water level seems to stop at sensible shoes and cats."
But as she looked in the mirror to make certain her hair was tidy, she sighed. Sensible shoes and cats were just her style, along with being pale, slight and nondescript. "Mousy" was a good word. Mary Elizabeth Potter had been born to be an old maid.
She was dressed as warmly as she could manage, unless she put on socks to wear with her sensible shoes, but she drew the line at that. Dainty white anklets with long ruffled skirts were one thing, but knee socks with a wool dress were something else entirely. She was willing to be dowdy for the sake of warmth; she was not willing to be tacky.