The splash of cool water hitting her face was more than a shock. It was like a blast of cold air hitting every inch of her naked body. Jessie gasped. Her eyes flew wide open, and she almost managed to bolt into a sitting position. When she started to fall backward, she threw a hand behind her to prop herself up.
“Whoa! Hold on! That was quite a tumble you took!”
The voice was one she didn’t recognize. Dazed and disoriented, she glanced at the figure towering above her, but the glaring sun was behind him. Holding her hand up to shade her eyes didn’t help either.
A warm, rough hand reached out and grabbed hers. She was hauled to her feet and stared at a face that immediately sent her hormones into overdrive…except the tingling she would normally feel in the deepest recesses between her legs didn’t happen. Instead, a most peculiar feeling blossomed in her crotch. Worse, she could sense a nearly overwhelming itch unfolding between her thighs. The last thing she wanted to do was to look down at herself and draw attention to the area. Fortunately, the young man leaned over, snatched a stained blue hat off the ground, and swatted it over his thigh to get the dust off before holding it out to her. As she watched him, she managed to get a good look at her lower half.
Wooziness swept over her, and Jessie nearly stumbled.
“Hey! I said whoa!” He laughed lightly, the sound of it soothing. Those calloused hands grabbed her by the shoulders, and she realized they were nearly even in height.
Her mind was screaming it was wrong. It was all wrong. It shouldn’t be, but she couldn’t deny it. Not at the moment, anyway.
The man tilted his head. “Are you gonna be all right?”
Another sickening wave of dizziness suddenly struck her. She closed her eyes and reached up, placing a hand on the side of her face to help ground herself, when she encountered a prickly stubble where she should be feeling smooth skin.
No. This isn’t happening to me. I’m dreaming. Or I’m hallucinating. But this can’t be real. This can’t be real!
She blinked. That deep voice. It wasn’t hers. It sounded…masculine.
“I think the heat got to you,” the man answered. “One minute you were looking a mite peaked. Next thing I know, you just slid off your horse and landed face-first on the ground.” He let go of her shoulders and stepped back. At the same time, Jessie could hear the sound of feet pounding the bare earth, alerting her to the fact that others were coming to investigate. Embarrassment began to heat her face, and she bowed her head, as if she was inspecting her boots.
It was crazy. She was dreaming, but it was unlike any dream she’d ever experienced because it felt real. It felt horribly real. Worse, her senses were reacting as if it was her present, although there was no ungodly way it could be.
“Private? Are you intoxicated?”
The authoritative voice was gruff and angry. Jessie looked up to see more men approaching. Men dressed in blue jackets and gray pants. Men carrying rifles and with swords belted around their waists.
Beside her, the man who’d helped her up straightened and saluted. Without thinking, she took her cue from him and did the same.
One man, a few inches shorter but much taller in attitude, returned the salute. The other men who’d accompanied him held back as he came within a few inches of her. He was thin, and he looked extremely uncomfortable in his uniform. His reddened face was pouring sweat as he sniffed her. Not finding what he was seeking, he placed his hands on his hips as he continued to frown at her.
“I asked you a question, private! Are you intoxicated?”
“Then why’d you fall off your horse?”
Jessie fought the urge to look around her and concentrated instead on the man standing a foot away. “I guess the heat got to me, sir.”
The man peered closer at her. He sniffed again and appeared satisfied to find her sober, but the scowl remained. “It’s hot every day, private. What makes today so damn special?” Before she could answer, he glanced at the man beside her. “Who are you? Where are you from?”
“Private Martin Parrish from Fort Lonagan, sir.” The man saluted again, then pulled a leather envelope from an inner pocket of his jacket. He handed the envelope over to the commanding officer, who withdrew some folded papers.
“Did you come alone?”
The man in charge unfolded the papers to glance over them. “Private Parrish, it appears you’ve been reassigned to this detail. I’m Captain Fresling. You’re part of Company K now. Go set your things in your barracks, then find Lieutenant Ordaway for your duties.”
“Yes, sir.” The new man took back his papers, but otherwise remained where he stood.
Fresling eyed Jessie, checking her out from top to bottom. “Private Webster, are you well enough to resume your duty?”
My duty? What the hell is my duty?
Chill, Jess. Do the bobblehead thing and wait until the guy leaves before trying to figure out what’s going on.
“Yes, sir.” At least her new deep voice sounded relatively certain.
Nodding, Fresling started to turn. The man beside her saluted, and Jessie followed suit. Throwing a return salute to them, the captain and his entourage started walking back toward…
Jessie’s eyes flew open as she took in the scene before her. Fort Callaghan was no longer a semi-barren landscape. Where there had been ruins, she could see multiple rock-faced structures. Here and there, people were moving about. Going about their daily work. Most of them wore the same blue and gray uniform as she did, as the captain and the other two men who’d accompanied him did.
As Parrish did.
She looked over to the man, who was equally staring at her with that amused smile still on his deeply tanned face.
“Webster, eh? What do friends call you?” He held out a hand to shake hers. Jessie obliged.
“Jessie.” At least she hoped to God her first name was still Jessie. If not, she’d pretend it was a nickname.
“Martin Parrish. Glad to make your acquaintance.” He glanced over her shoulder. “Are you gonna be all right getting back up on that mare?”
This time she could look behind her at the animal nosing the ground a few feet away. “Yeah. I think so. Thanks for the help.”
Martin nodded. “Might want to remember to drink lots of water while you’re running the perimeter. It helps.”
She managed a smile. “Thanks. I will.”
“Oh. You might need this, too.” He reached down and picked up a rifle, handing it to her.
Jessie took the rifle. “Appreciate it.”
He nodded again, but instead of getting back on his horse, he grabbed the reins and started walking into camp, leading the animal. He never glanced back at her, for which she was grateful. It allowed her to watch the man amble toward the encampment and enjoy the way his pants fit his butt like a glove. But she also realized that if she dawdled, there was the chance Captain Fresling would return, and this time she wouldn’t get off so easy. Sighing, she went to retrieve her horse.