“Yes, please. For my friend as well.”
Cassandra glanced into the friend’s dark eyes before dashing back to the kitchen. She filled a larger single pitcher, grabbed two mugs and delivered them to the Lee table.
Eyes soft with sympathy, Jackson said, “That was a fine service for Seth. The minister gave a touching eulogy.”
“Thank you. I appreciate you taking time to attend.”
“Seth came to the ranch to help me with a horse or two. I trusted his judgment. The county will feel the loss.”
She nodded gratitude for his kind words before disappearing into the crowd. Tavern work was physical labor. It kept her occupied, doing its part in healing the loss of only a few weeks. She weaved briskly and efficiently through the crowds, remembering orders called out to her. The men were always thirsty. She did her best to stay on top of it, knowing Bertie’s knees were not too strong with gout setting in.
An hour later it calmed enough to take a brief break. “The tables are taken care of, everyone has drinks. The new bottle of whiskey is open and under the bar to the left,” she told Bertie. “I have to check the mare.”
“Our girl getting close, is she?”
Cassandra untied and tossed her apron under the bar. “She was breathing heavy this afternoon. Hopefully she holds out until the crowd thins.”
“I will keep an eye out for Dom. You go on, see how she is.”
Fairly flying out the back door, Cassandra gathered her skirts to run across the yard toward the stables. Opening the doors, she hurried to the stall, hearing the sounds of the mare’s groans.
The mare was down in hard labor. Cassandra knelt in the hay, patting the horse’s neck. “Poor girl. You are having a rough time.”
She had assisted Seth back in England when a foal made its way into the world. If there were no complications, she could help deliver. The mare turned her head toward her midsection letting out an unearthly bellow. It did not sound good.
In the next hour Cassandra bustled between the tavern’s demanding patrons, the stables to walk the mare to aid the labor, and the stream to clean up.
Making a beeline into the main room, she called over her shoulder, “It will cost you more if I do not bring this foal into the world safe and sound.”
Dashing about the room, she was greeted with annoyance from neglected patrons. As she neared his table, Jackson inquired kindly, “Everything all right, Cassandra?” He looked relieved to finally be served.
She noticed the irritable look in his companion’s dark eyes when she placed the fresh ale before them. Leaning down, she whispered to Jackson, “My mare is in trouble. I fear the foal is turned the wrong way. I do not have time to attend her until the tavern closes. By then it may well be too late.”
On her next trip to the kitchen, Dom stood, impatient. “What is wrong with the bloody mare? Why in the name of God do you keep rushing out there?”
“The mare is laboring.” The words barely left her lips before he ordered her out the door.
“Part of the money from that foal is mine. Get on out there! Take care to get it out into this world alive. I swear I should have never got myself involved in this deal!”
He glared angrily as she left, banging the door behind her.
At Jackson’s table, the two men drank quietly, watching the disagreement going on behind the scenes. “Dom’s got horses out back?” Colton Rolfe asked Jackson, aware the innkeeper avoided the costs of an active stable. Lodgers at the inn had to make arrangements for their animals at a public stable down the street.
“They are Cassandra’s,” Jackson answered, taking a deep draught from his mug.
“A tavern maid has horses? If the mare is in trouble, she better see to her instead of bouncing around here serving ale and spirits.”
“Do not be so hard on her, Colt. She just lost her husband. It is the mare’s first foaling.” Jackson spread his arms wide. “You can see how busy it is in here. In the mood to help a damsel in distress and give her a hand delivering the foal?”
“Best I do. If we leave a woman to muck about with it, she will not have a foal or mare.” Colton stood abruptly, striding out without a backward glance, leaving a surprised Jackson to settle the bill.
Colton entered the stables, his eyes quickly adjusting to the dark. He followed the lamp light and soft voice soothing the distressed mare. His gaze settled on the young woman kneeling in the small stall, her skirts littered with sopping straw, the mare’s waters having broken. His attention moved to the straining mare.
“Get out of the way, woman,” he ordered, grabbing her shoulders in his hands and pulling her away from the mare.
From the corner of his eye, the woman glanced up, relief in her eyes to see Jackson enter the stall. Colton knew he could be intimidating but Jackson obviously calmed the woman.
“Jackson,” she breathed, welcoming the familiar man walking toward her. She fussed with her skirts while Jackson patted her shoulder reassuringly.
“Your mare is in excellent hands, Cassandra.” Jackson grinned and winked. “No one in Virginia is any more capable.”
She nodded, apparently taking some comfort in his words.
Colton shifted his position to the back of the horse, took one look and said brusquely, “Get the box stall ready!”
“Sir, Dom will not approve of us using…” she started.
“Now!” he barked, cutting her off then turning to snatch the halter from a nail on the stall wall.
Jackson chuckled and extended his hand, assisting Cassandra to her feet. “What my friend Colton so eloquently means is he doubts Dom will object to us using of the box stall. I believe you mentioned once to me he has a financial interest in this foal?”
“Yes, he does,” she said, ineffectually brushing off her skirts.
“We need room to move around if you want live offspring,” Colton snapped, fitting the halter on the mare. “Dom’s objections be damned.”
While flabbergasted by his abrupt manner, Cassandra obeyed his order by rushing to the larger box stall to lay fresh straw and ready it for the mare.
“Jackson, make yourself useful by standing at her rear,” Colton instructed Jackson. “C’mon, old girl, get up.” His voice was still firm but held soothing encouragement. He gently patted the mare’s chest to rouse her.
When Colton looked up, Cassandra stood in the doorway, observing the mare struggle to her feet. Ignoring the way the woman looked at him, he continued patting the mare’s chest while he tugged the halter. He waited when the mare started to quiver with contractions.
“What do you see back there?” he asked Jackson.
Jackson peered under the mare’s tail. “Feet,” he said somberly, confirming his earlier suspicions.
“Damn,” Colton cursed. He turned the mare, pulling on the halter once the contraction subsided. “C’mon, ol’ girl, we are moving you to roomier quarters.” He led her from the stall, past a worried Cassandra with barely a glance in her direction.
Once in the larger stall, the mare groaned and went down to her knees, collapsing sideways into the straw. “I need rope, clean grease, water and soap.”
“Right,” Jackson answered, hurrying to retrieve the needed supplies.
Cassandra caught Jackson’s sleeve in passing. “I will get them. You stay here in case he needs an extra pair of hands.” Jackson nodded in agreement before she rushed off.
Jackson looked around and spotted a length of rope hanging on the wall at the opposite end of the stables. He went over and snatched it up. “Got a rope,” he said, holding it up.
“Good,” Colton murmured as he removed his coat and flung it, and his shirt, over the stall door. He took the rope from Jackson and laid it aside, knelt by the mare’s hindquarters and moved her tail aside.
Jackson followed suit, removing his coat but only loosening his shirt around his neck and rolling up his sleeves. “You will frighten the girl if you stay half naked, Colt.”
“If she is that delicate, she should not have horses. Where is the wench, anyway?”
“She has only been gone two minutes. Give her time.”
Just then, Cassandra rushed in, a bucket of water in one hand, its contents sloshing down her skirts, soaking them. She clutched a pail of grease in the other. “I could not find a rope,” she huffed, out of breath.
“We found one,” Jackson assured her.
Cassandra looked in the stall as the men worked. To Colton’s amusement, the woman suddenly flushed when she noticed the state of his undress. Apparently disturbed by her own reaction, she busied herself getting the soap from her apron pocket, almost dropping it from her noticeably shaking hand.
Jackson took the pail of grease from Cassandra to set beside Colton. Cassandra watched intently as Colton dipped the length of rope and his arm in the grease, coating both. Sprawled on the straw behind the mare, he gradually inserted his bare arm into the mare’s vulva, leaving the rope on the rim of the pail. He grunted slightly when he felt around in the mare’s stretched womb. Sweat started breaking out on his brow and torso as he worked to assess the situation.
“The foal is not feet first, as I suspected. Its hindquarters are first.” He cursed under his breath.
“We will have to turn it,” Jackson said.
“No room. The foal is too large. It will have to come out backwards.”
Jackson shook his head solemnly as he knelt down behind Colton, taking up the rope. He knew that Jackson knew how serious this was.
“I feel useless. Is there anything I can do?” she asked timidly.
Colton growled, “Yes, stay out of the way.”
The two men worked silently, as if they could read each other’s minds. Cassandra marveled at how different they were and yet worked as one, heads close together by the mare’s backside. One was fair and tall, well-formed and handsome. She heard rumors how Jackson Lee, since the loss of his wife and child, was now the target of predatory females in the county, eager for a prosperous match to the young plantation owner.
She could understand it. Jackson was indeed an attractive man. She supposed the short time since Seth’s passing was why she did not feel an attraction to him. Still, she appreciated his friendship.
Her gaze moved to his rude companion, again feeling that odd, unfamiliar sensation. An emotion she had not experienced before.
She saw a dangerous, graceful sensuality in Colton’s body. He possessed a full head of thick, black hair, loosed from its ribbon and flowing down his muscular neck, shoulders and back. His skin was bronzed as if perpetually exposed to the sun. There was a savage aura about this man.