by Helen Adams
Author's Note: This is a sequel to First Kiss, and the second of a planned three story arc, so you really should read that one first. Fair warning, this is only a relationship building piece. The steamy stuff is reserved for part 3.
Back to: First Kiss
Her skin was soft beneath his fingertips, warm and smooth as sun-warmed silk. Just the barest touch was enough to make Ezra's body tingle.
"You look beautiful tonight," he said, thumbs brushing gently over the backs of her hands as he held Inez at arm's length, surveying the lovely picture that she made. Her clothing was of finer quality and a more conservative cut than usual, and for the first time since he had met her, her hair was pinned up. She looked elegant, and the few strands of hair already escaping the crown of loose braids, dipping down to brush against her shoulders, only enhanced the effect.
Inez smiled at the admiration in his gaze. "Gracias." Freeing her hands, she placed them upon her waist, moving her hips slightly to make the voluminous folds of her long multi-layered red skirt sway and swish. "I have been saving this for a special occasion."
The ruffled white lawn of her blouse pulled tightly across her breasts as she moved, drawing Ezra's attention to them. He swallowed and licked his lips, suddenly overwhelmed as her innocent comment filled his imagination with possibilities entirely inappropriate for a first date. "Beautiful," he said again.
Inez blushed at the unexpected rasp of passion in his voice. Raising a hand to lightly brush the lapel of his forest green jacket, she smiled. The rich shade enhanced the pale mint color of his eyes and he had paired the coat with black trousers and tie and a shirt of smoke gray silk that set off the shimmering material of his new emerald green vest. Boots that had been polished to a high shine perfected the ensemble. "You are very handsome tonight yourself," she told him softly.
Ezra's eyes sparkled with pleasure at the compliment. Gallantly offering his right arm, he bowed. "Shall we, m'lady?"
Smile widening at his playful tone, she gave a shallow curtsy and took his arm. "Si, senor."
The two walked toward the restaurant, carefully keeping a proper degree of distance between their bodies, only the touch of Inez's hand upon Ezra's forearm keeping them connected. It was as though each feared that further contact would cause the electricity charging between them to ignite.
"The heat wave we've been through of late appears to be lessening at last," Ezra said to break the silence. Brushing his free hand down the front of his jacket he joked, "It was almost endurable to be attired as a gentleman today."
Inez smiled. "Much better," she agreed, but then could not resist teasing a bit, "though the way you were dressed yesterday morning looked quite comfortable."
"That was most inappropriate of me," he said at once, grimacing at the memory of his very casual attire, "appearing so unkempt in public. I must apologize as well if my behavior caused you any offense. Soaring temperatures have a way of reminding even the best mannered among us that we are not too many generations removed from our primitive past."
"Does that mean I must apologize as well?" Inez asked, amusement dancing in her eyes at his prim declaration. "I seem to recall that I approached you first."
Surprised, Ezra looked up, a relieved grin relaxing his features as he realized that not only had Inez not expected an apology, she did not want one. "Well then, perhaps we should hope for the current weather patterns to continue. Had I not been suffering from the heat yesterday, I would not have forgotten myself so, and you might not have pitied me enough to try and offer comfort, meaning we would not be on this delightful outing together right now."
Noting his polite omission of how she had chosen to comfort him, she laughed. "Had I known what would happen, I would have tried to kiss you much sooner."
Startled, he stopped in his tracks. "Would you really?"
Inez colored prettily but did not drop her gaze.
Brushing his thumb across her cheek, Ezra asked, "And would you think me a terrible cad if I were to confess how badly I want to kiss you again right now?"
Unable to form a reply, Inez simply shook her head and lifted her chin in silent invitation.
The world around them seemed to fade as their lips drew closer, inch by slow inch.
Only a breath away from contact, they both jumped, jerking apart guiltily as a cheerful voice rang out, "Wow, you two sure look fancy tonight!"
Quickly disguising his irritation at the interruption, Ezra manufactured a smile. "Hello, JD. How are you this fine evening?"
He grinned. "Can't complain. Howdy, Inez," he added, tipping his hat to her.
"Good evening, JD," she replied with a smile.
"Hey, you heading over to the restaurant?" the young man went on enthusiastically, oblivious to the charged atmosphere he had interrupted. "They got chicken-fried steak tonight. Real good, you should try some."
"Perhaps we shall. I'm sure you would like to resume the journey toward your intended destination as well," Ezra suggested, hoping that he would take the hint.
Unfortunately, JD failed to pick up the signal. "Oh, I wasn't going anyplace in particular," he said. "I reckon I got room enough for a piece of pie if you want some company."
Inez struggled not to laugh as she watched an expression of dismay sweep across Ezra's features, his mouth opening and closing as he tried to come up with a polite way of telling JD to go away and mind his own business.
Luckily, he did not have to say anything as Vin Tanner suddenly appeared from the shadows and grabbed JD by the arm, announcing, "Hey, kid. Buck's lookin' for you over at the saloon."
JD struggled uncertainly for a moment. "Oh, okay, but I was just, um, well I s'pose I'd better go. Sorry," he apologized with a shrug. "Guess it must be important."
"Quite all right," Ezra said sincerely, flashing Vin a grateful smile. "We'll see you tomorrow."
Vin winked. "You two enjoy your date now."
As he tugged JD away from the scene, the young man's surprised voice could be heard saying, "Date?"
Watching them walk away, Ezra smiled, shaking his head as he muttered, "Impeccable as always, my friend." Glancing at Inez, he commented, "JD's timing is not nearly so fortuitous. Do you suppose either of us was ever that naïve?"
"He is sweet," Inez replied, casting a fond look at the retreating figures. Dipping her head in polite response to another couple passing on the boardwalk, she added, "And it is probably just as well that he came along when he did."
Reminded that he had nearly created a public spectacle for the second time in as many days, Ezra winced. "You're right, my dear. I am terribly-"
"Hungry?" she interrupted, cutting off his intended apology with a grin. "So am I. Too hungry for sensible thinking, it seems."
Ezra chuckled ruefully. "I believe you may be right. Shall we?"
Inside the mostly empty restaurant the couple dined on tender beef filets and steamed vegetables, Ezra having deemed the aforementioned chicken fried steak to be far too prosaic for such a special occasion. A chilled bottle of wine, which he had personally delivered to the restaurant earlier in the day, complemented the meal and the conversation was light, filled with the typical small talk of a couple feeling each other out on their first date.
Finally, as they finished the meal with cups of coffee and slices of pound cake topped with fresh berries and cream, the discussion took a serious turn.
"May I ask you a personal question?" Ezra ventured.
"Have you... that is, were Misters Wilmington and Tanner correct in saying that you had developed a, a personal interest in me, prior to yesterday morning?"
Nervously fidgeting with the fork on her empty dessert plate, she countered, "They also seemed to think that perhaps you might have... feelings... for me."
Ezra drew a deep breath, letting it out slowly as he gathered his nerve. "It seems that my cohorts are considerably more observant than I have ever given them credit for."
She looked up, dark eyes widening in surprise. "It is true?"
"Yes... it is. Now, will you answer my question?"
Inez looked at him with a smile so tender that it took Ezra's breath away. "They were correct."
"So then, what happened between us yesterday," he began, half afraid to finish the thought.
Inez reached across to stroke his cheek, carding her fingers through his hair. "Was no more than a good beginning. You remember when Buck was teasing that we should go upstairs together?"
"You said that we were not ready," he finished. "Yes, I remember."
She nodded. "I think you know that I really meant that I was not ready."
"And it has only been thirty six hours since you made that statement," Ezra said smoothly. "I cannot claim that I wasn't a bit disappointed, being somewhat caught up in the moment, but of course I understand."
"You do not," she said, stroking the tips of her fingers lightly around the shell of his ear. "After so many months of empty dreams, things were suddenly moving very quickly and I needed time to think; to believe. Thirty six hours can be more than enough time to build hope, no?"
"Perhaps enough time to change one's life," he agreed. Capturing her hands he told her earnestly, "I would like to know more about your dreams. You deserve so much, Inez. Elegant dinners and fine possessions, moonlit walks, flowers and gifts, all of the proper rituals of courting. You deserve those things, but you must understand that I am not what anyone might consider a good prospect."
Squeezing his hands, she asked, "What are you saying? Is it that you do you not wish to try; to see what we might build together?"
"Oh no. No," he responded, urgency and distress in every word. "I'm telling you because while strict honesty may not be my usual standard, I need for you to consider what you may be letting yourself in for. I have no home except a single room, above a saloon that I do not own. I have a job that puts me in mortal peril on a weekly basis for almost no monetary return. My gaming skills are both less reliable and less respectable in the eyes of many than most professions a man could undertake. You must know that I haven't the wherewithal to give you most of what you deserve."
Sharp eyes catching the uncomfortable shift of his body, she leaned closer. Keeping her tone even, she asked, "Is there something you are not telling me, Ezra?"
A decidedly guilty expression darted over his features as he tried and failed to meet her eyes. Licking his lips, he admitted, "I realize that this is a terribly rude subject to discuss over dinner, but as I am laying my cards on the table, you may as well have it all."
Ezra cleared his throat nervously. "You should be warned that, all appearances aside, I seriously doubt that I am gentleman enough to engage in a strictly platonic long-standing relationship. Not with you."
He tensed, looking as if he was waiting to be slapped, and Inez laughed softly. "Oh, mi Corazon, you are a fool. A wonderful and romantic fool. I do not need courting and gifts and fine possessions. My only desire is you."
"But, your reputation..."
She looked deeply into Ezra's eyes, pinning his gaze. Her own eyes became serious as she said, "I traveled here from Mexico, a woman alone and unescorted, to take a job managing a saloon. I spend my days surrounded by drunken men and my nights sleeping alone in a room behind that saloon. I associate freely with gamblers and gunslingers, and my virtue was lost to a violent man in my home village before I could truly be called a woman." When Ezra's mouth opened to protest, a look of shock in his eyes at the last statement, Inez placed her fingers over his lips. "That pain is the past, and I am happy with my present, no matter what it may say of my reputation."
"And what does your future hold?" he ventured, kissing her knuckles gently.
"Perhaps we will find out together," she whispered. "And perhaps by my saying this you will believe me to be a very bold woman, but you have been honest and I can do no less. I do not wish to wait another night to be with you."
For several moments, Ezra's mouth worked but no sound came forth. Astonishment, uncertainty, delight and what could only be described as lust chased across his features, in quick succession.
Finally, as Inez pulled his left hand close and kissed it, slipping her tongue out to take a tiny lap at the surface of his palm, Ezra cast a desperate look towards the waiter and croaked, "Check, please?"
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