A wealth of her red-gold hair glimmering like a fall sunset drew his eye. The body beneath it garnered his attention as well. As she walked up the main aisle, Heath Jackson perused the woman openly from his seat near the back. An unusual mix of reds and gold, shot through with an occasional strand of reddish brown—akin to copper—her hair was nothing like he’d ever seen before. It was gathered high at the back of her head in a clip that barely contained the bounty and allowed several long springy tendrils to escape. He imagined it was breathtaking when falling loose around her shoulders. His fingers burned to release the high knot, spear into the mass, and finger comb the glossy curls that would surely reach to her lower back, or beyond to her pert little bottom.
Despite the small bustle on her dress, he could discern a narrow waist, curvy hips, and what he imagined was a sweetly rounded bottom. He’d developed quite an imagination when the despicable birdcages had come into fashion and hid one of his favorite feminine features from view. At least he no longer had to try to determine a woman’s shape beneath one of those awful hoop skirts.
As the woman moved along, she nodded at folks, pausing every now and again for a brief word or to clasp hands. Near the front, she leaned over to hug an elderly woman who was too frail to stand. The position pulled her skirt tight across her hips and Heath nearly swallowed his tongue. Images of the beauty bent over with her bottom bared for him flooded his mind.
Without benefit of the skirt and whatever fripperies she wore beneath, he would guide her curvy body over one of the benches. Naked, her bottom upraised, she would tremble ever so slightly in anticipation. Stretching forward, she’d reach toward the bench seat, her breasts swaying freely, the glorious mass of her titian hair tumbling over her shoulders and onto the cushions, spreading out like a fan.
She would strain toward the floor, her toes pointed downward, just out of reach. As she balanced precariously, he would enjoy teasing glimpses of the sweet treasure that lay between her thighs, the glistening pink flesh framed by a perfect thatch of red-gold curls.
Breathless and eager for that first touch, for the fervent kiss of his hard palm on her rounded behind, she would whimper softly through her plump parted lips.
Ever gracious, he wouldn’t make her wait.
Beginning low on the back of her silken thigh, he’d run his hand slowly upward, gliding over the rounded hills of her bottom cheeks. His fingertips, grazing along the cleft, would dip inside to test her wetness and heat.
As she trembled in response, his purpose would come back to him. A long time in coming, she had earned this spanking for teasing him, flirting outrageously, holding herself away from him and building his need to a fever pitch.
Unable to wait any longer, his hand would rear back, returning swiftly to connect with a smarting crack across her pristine behind. A sharp intake of breath echoing off the walls would come back to them as she flipped her hair. She would turn to him, her beautiful face flushed, brilliant green eyes wide as a plea came from her lips…
Fantasy became reality in that moment as the redhead turned and he saw her brilliant green eyes, which seemed to gaze straight at him. No, not at him, she was looking at her father, who had been standing behind her. With a parting kiss to his cheek, she turned and proceeded up the aisle toward the front of the church.
His stomach lurched as he came to grips with the fact that the redhead he was ogling and lusting after was Jenny Harper. A longtime friend of the family and a decade or more his junior, she was an innocent no doubt. Horror swept through him as he realized he’d had a sex fantasy about her, a mere child and in church no less.
He sat back and closed his eyes, waiting for lightning to strike him and send him straight to hell. At the very least, he expected God to smite him for befouling this sweet child and his house of worship in one fell swoop with his decadent and lustful thoughts.
A sharp pain seared his ribcage. His eyes flew open, half expecting to see an angel of vengeance hovering over him with a bloody sword.
“Heath Jackson,” a familiar voice whispered. “Don’t you dare fall asleep.”
He closed his eyes in relief that his death wasn’t yet imminent and he would undoubtedly live to sin another day. The sharp pain came again, but now he knew the source. He turned his head and looked down at his mother, who was glaring up at him.
“I’ll not have it, young man. The one Sunday out of a baker’s dozen that you deign to accompany your mother to church and you doze off before the service even starts?”
Young man, he mentally sighed. In a month he’d be thirty; he wondered if she would ever stop calling him that. He reached for her arm, preventing further use of her pointed elbow.
“I’m awake, ma, so kindly stop jabbing my side or it will be two dozen more Sundays before you coax me back.”
His mother sniffed, reaching out to pick up her hymnal. Looking to her other side, he met his pa’s eyes and heard his amused chuckle.
Unable to resist, he faced forward, his eyes searching for the young miss who was responsible for his lewd thoughts.
He had trouble locating her at first, scanning, but not finding the sunset curls in any of the pews up ahead. When the opening bars of a hymn sounded, he flicked his gaze up to the gallery. Instead of the enduring Mrs. Stanton as expected, he saw Jenny’s bright head bent over the keys.
Throughout the service, he studied her at length, going through the motions of the service, mindlessly standing and sitting with the rest of the congregation. His thoughts, however, were far from spiritual, leaning more toward the carnal although not nearly as bad as before—before he knew who she was, that is.
Put simply, she was a beauty, with stunning green eyes, fair skin, a light smattering of freckles across her nose, and a tempting mouth, plump and pink, made for kissing. He noticed she worried her lower lip at times when she played a difficult passage. As the hymns flowed beautifully from her fingertips, her body swayed slightly as her hands danced over the keys.
As the music swelled above the congregation, he noticed numerous pairs of male eyes fixed on her. All were admiring, but more than a few were covetous despite the holy venue. His gut twisted with an odd sense of resentment. He wanted to protect her, shield her somehow from their lust-filled eyes. He wanted to hide her curvaceous figure, maybe with a screen around the piano, or at the very least cover her with something loose and voluminous rather than the navy blue dress that, despite being tasteful and conservative enough for church, showed off every rounded feature and luscious curve.
He shifted uncomfortably in the pew as the reverend waxed long in his sermon over morality of all things. He tamped down his body’s response, which hadn’t been easy, although being in church and seated next to his mother was helpful.
At one point as Jenny played, her head turned and her gaze scanned the crowd. His followed, wondering if those pretty eyes would land on a sweetheart, but she didn’t linger on anyone too long until she came to a stop on his family’s pew. The gorgeous green orbs shifted to him and they widened in surprise. Now, she did linger as her lips curved upward in a small smile. His body stirred as he returned her gaze.
He leaned to his mother. “Jenny Harper. How old is she now, sixteen?”
“No, dear, she’s older than that, eighteen, at least. She finished school this past spring. Why? Are you interested?”
Great. He had piqued her curiosity. The badgering would begin, again.
“She’s younger than you, but not so much,” she whispered. “She’s sweet and kind with not a greedy bone in her body, I’d swear to it. So there’s no need to worry about that.” She patted his arm. “What am I saying? You’ve known Jenny and her family for years. She’d be perfect for you, Heath.”
His eyes shot back to the gallery, to Jenny. She was playing the closing song with her eyes locked on him. As she was caught openly staring, a becoming blush colored her cheeks and she glanced back at the keys.
Fresh from the schoolroom, she was looking for love and marriage no doubt. Considering his twenty-nine years, his thoughts about a teenager seemed down right indecent.
She wasn’t for him. Marriage wasn’t for him. He’d learned that the hard way. He pushed her from his thoughts.
“I’ll see you at supper,” he murmured as he rose and strode toward the exit. Thankful for his Stetson that concealed the painful bulge in his trousers, he hurried from the church as if the ass of his britches was on fire. As he hit the double doors, a discordant note made him pause. It was the first she had missed the entire service. He didn’t let it deter him. He couldn’t. He wouldn’t risk his heart ever again. Jamming his hat on his head, he burst through the doors and didn’t look back.
Two years later…
Straightening her legs, she lifted her skirts to mid-calf to better see the cream-colored ankle boots she was trying on for size. Twisting her foot from side to side, she admired the black accents at the toes and heels, and the side lacing.
“They are very pretty.”
Jenny Harper glanced up to see a young blonde who appeared to be close to her own age, maybe a bit older, trying on shoes on the bench next to her. The woman flashed a friendly smile and as she did, her blue eyes twinkled with delight.
“Those are the best in the store, I believe,” she whispered, as if sharing a confidence.
Jenny couldn’t help but smile back; her cordiality was contagious. “They are very pretty, but three dollars. It’s so much.”
The other girl giggled. “Three dollars for boots; who’d have ever thought it possible? These ridiculously low prices are difficult to get used to.”
Confused by that odd statement, Jenny angled her head. “Pardon?”
“Oh, it’s nothing.”
They chatted amicably while trying on pair after pair of the latest styles—at least by Laramie standards—until a shrill, grating voice sounded behind them.
“I hear the women’s wing at the territorial prison issues work boots. Maybe you can pick up a pair when you get there.”
Jenny gasped at the rude insinuation. Was she speaking to her? As one, she and the other young woman turned to see Louise Meyers staring down at them smugly.
“Well, well… Jenny Harper and the marshal’s woman. I’ll have to speak to Jane Ivinson about letting harlots and thieves shop in her store.”
The most hateful woman Jenny had ever met, Louise seemed to take joy in targeting others’ weaknesses and holding them up for public ridicule. Louise was older by several years, and Jenny had put up with her abuse for too long. Mama always said to ignore it, that ladies did not cause scenes in public, but the vile insults and slurs that came out of the woman’s mouth were impossible to let pass.
“I am neither a harlot nor a thief, Louise Meyers.” Sputtering in outrage, she fought against the tears of embarrassment that formed in her eyes. “Take that back.”
“I heard you were caught kissing Jake Stewart after the barn dance last week. I don’t see a ring on your finger, so you must be of easy virtue to give it away. What else are we in the community to think?”
Sweet heavens! The memory of that evening flashed before her and heat flooded her cheeks. Jake had kissed her in the dark, beside the barn at last week’s dance.
Louise laughed cruelly. “She blushes. You’d think a harlot would be past the point of shyness.”
Jenny gaped at Louise in horror, her gaze moving past her as other shoppers drew close to investigate the raised voices. If word got out—Dear heavens, what was she thinking? The woman was an inveterate gossip. If Louise knew, then surely half the town did too.
Her gaze cut to the woman beside her. Jenny had foolishly thought they could start up a friendship, but she seemed shocked, if not a little angry. She had no doubt expected that she could shop in a reputable establishment without fear of being exposed to fallen women of Jenny’s ilk. Although it wasn’t true, with Louise’s assertions and the gossip that would spread like wildfire in Laramie, she would be labeled as a loose woman, despite her denials.
Her mortification complete, all she could think about was fleeing. Jenny choked back her tears and ran, leaving the two women exchanging harsh words behind her. Abandoning the collection of goods she had gathered for purchase, including the pretty boots selected for next month’s dance, she rushed down the main aisle.
With the front door in sight, she skidded to a halt as Louise’s mother entered the store. As mean as her daughter and doubly malicious, the older woman was headed her way. Assuming the daughter shared her vicious lies with her mother, Jenny ducked into the next room, deciding to wait there until they were all gone. She cast an eye over the array of pitchforks, shovels, and hoes hanging from hooks on the walls and sighed in relief. As city folks, Louise and her mother would have no reason to come in here. It was the perfect spot to lay low until they left.
Slumping against the only empty space on the crowded wall, Jenny turned her thoughts to how this could have happened. How had Louise known about her and Jake? Had someone actually seen them?
It had been her first kiss, which, at the age of twenty, was a long time in coming. The other girls, some younger than her, had gone on and on about how wonderful it was to kiss a boy. When Jake led her outside into the shadows by the barn, she had gone eagerly, deciding to see what the fuss was about. They had been careful, or so she thought, stealing away out a side door, and with a moonless night, Jenny had thought they were well hidden in the darkness.
Looking back, the entire incident had been a huge disappointment. His lips had been dry and rough, and he’d pressed too hard, painfully mashing her lips against her teeth. When she felt his tongue jabbing at her, trying to push into her mouth, that had been enough and she’d pushed him away. He hadn’t wanted to stop and tightened his grip. She struggled and in the end, ground her heel into his instep until he let loose and she made her escape. He’d called after her, using some very offensive language when she didn’t stop.
Since then, she tried again with other suitors, but eventually sworn off kissing altogether. It wasn’t soft and sweet as her friends claimed. Instead, it had been rather repugnant. Jake certainly hadn’t swept her off her feet, nor had he set her heart all atwitter as she’d been promised. In fact, seeing nothing heart-stopping or romantic about the entire sordid incident, she had put it from her mind—until today. Thanks to Louise Meyers and her big mouth, her reputation would be in shreds all because of a wholly dissatisfying first kiss. Damn and blast!
She needed to go. Her mother would be waiting and she’d been hiding here long enough. Peeking around the corner, she saw a clear path to the front door and took it. Head down, she hurried between the rows of canned goods, walking briskly just short of a run. She felt her distress ease as she passed the end of the shelving and made the turn at the front. At the last second, she noticed a sky-high stack of fifty-pound bags of flour at the end of the aisle. It towered inches over her head and was the last barrier in her path. She veered sharply to the right to avoid it and slammed into a wall. The force of the collision was jarring, pushing the air from her lungs and sending her body flying backwards. Certain she would land on the floor, her hands swung wildly for something to grab onto. She clutched handfuls of soft cotton at the same time strong hands grabbed her waist and kept her from falling on her behind.
“Whoa, darlin’, where’s the fire?”
Wait… walls didn’t talk, nor did they have big hands with long muscled arms and broad shoulders, or a velvety smooth voice that made you want to snuggle into the warmth of it. The jolt must have addled her brain. Shaking her head to straighten her thoughts, she focused on the true obstacle in front of her, a man’s broad chest. It was covered in muted red broadcloth, the color a stark contrast to the tan buttons running along the placket. Oddly, she noticed the stitching, small and tight, perfectly spaced, obviously sewn by a skilled hand. Following the line upward, she took in the open collar that exposed a tanned neck. She blinked, before her eyes flew up to the strong jawline, covered in a dark shadow of whiskers and above it, full sensuous lips. Above that, she found a familiar pair of brown eyes, currently filled with amusement. A lock of wavy brown hair fell across his brow and she watched in fascination as Heath Jackson jerked his head to the side—since his hands were full of her—to move it back off his forehead and out of his eyes.
“Are you all right, Jenny?”
Feeling like a gape-jawed, dimwitted ninny, she shut her mouth and took a step back. As she did, his hands—no longer needed—fell away. She would have sighed with regret at the loss of his touch if she hadn’t already made a spectacle of herself.
“I beg your pardon for not watching where I was going, Mr. Jackson.”
He tilted his head and arched a brow in question. “Here now. What’s with the formality? It’s Heath, as always.” A touch of a smile tipped his lips.
Captivated, Jenny’s eyes homed in on the movement, watching in fascination as his mouth curved up. As it did, small laugh lines appeared, bracketing his lips. It was a beautiful smile, not a smirk or an inane grin that she’d get from most boys her age had they caught her in such an instance. No, Heath Jackson was a man, with a man’s maturity and sensibilities; he knew better. It made her fall in love with him even more.
She backed up another step, appalled she had that thought in his presence. With her bad luck, her wayward mouth would open and declarations of undying love would pour out. Before that happened, she needed to go, now.
“I’ve got to run,” came blurting out as she inched backward. “I’m late to meet my mother.” After another step, and another, she whirled and bumped head-on into the towering stack of flour. A whooshing noise from overhead had her looking up. She watched in horror as a bag slid off the top of the pile and missed her by an inch, landing with a heavy thud in the precise spot where she had been standing only seconds ago. Another whoosh sounded. Horrified, she moved forward with hands uselessly reaching up to stop them. Abruptly, she was jerked back by a sharp tug on her skirts right as another thud sounded.
“You’ll be crushed,” Heath warned near her ear. “Leave it for Byron.”
At least a half dozen more rained down with a succession of thuds as the tower swayed. As if the mere mention of his name made it so, Byron Franks magically appeared, his long, lanky frame flying up the aisle. He skidded to a halt as two more bags teetered precariously, ready to fall.
Heath handled it, setting Jenny aside and snatching the hefty bags up as if they were filled with down rather than weighty flour.
“Miss Jenny!” the store manager cried. “Were you hurt?”
Wide-eyed, her gaze swept the mess she’d made on the floor. Bags lay all around and a white cloud of flour rose like smoke from the floor. Mortified, she peeped up at Byron before swinging around to glance at Heath, although she couldn’t actually bring herself to meet his eyes. That she instigated this fiasco, with Heath Jackson as a witness, on top of the altercation with Louise Meyers was too much to bear. She whispered, “I’m so sorry.” With flickers of shame licking up her neck and over her cheeks, tears flooded her eyes. Spinning on her heel, she bolted, making a mad dash for the door, ignoring Heath as he called after her.
Jenny waited in the buggy wishing for the power of invisibility. Parked just down the street, it could clearly be seen, with her in it, by anyone leaving the store. She slumped down, getting as low in the seat as possible as she kept glancing over her shoulder to see if anyone was coming—Heath for one, or Mr. Franks demanding restitution for the mess she made. Could she have been any more ungainly, stumbling into things like a lumbering fool and in front of Heath Jackson of all people?
She groaned. While she was clumsiness personified, he was masculine grace and poise at its finest, his movements fluid in a strong, self-assured way. Jenny vividly remembered the first time she’d seen him.
She was walking home from school with two of her friends, their usual path taking them through the busy west end of town near the new train depot. It was crowded that day with the Union Pacific Railroad having opened its rail line to Laramie only months before. Folks were arriving in droves to settle in and around town. Unfortunately, not all of them were the kind of folks the founders wanted putting down roots.
A few rowdy men were in some kind of scuffle and a gun had been fired, spooking an edgy horse. Unfortunately, that horse had been tied to a buggy driven by old Mrs. McKittrick. At eighty-eight, she was Laramie’s oldest citizen, spry for her age but not nearly enough to handle an agitated horse in a crowd. She’d lost control of her gig, which had gone careening down Main Street. Jenny and her friends had watched in horror as the woman tried in vain to reach the reins that had slipped from her grasp. They scurried after it, along with the rest of the crowd, certain that things would not end well as the gig picked up speed.
Then, out of nowhere, Heath road up alongside the runaway vehicle. To the amazement of all, he leapt from his horse to the gig, somehow managing to reach the loose reins, and saved Mrs. McKittrick. Aaron, his youngest brother, had also been there, riding on the other side and trying to catch the reins while leaning precariously from his horse, but it was Heath who saved the day. Jenny had fallen instantly and utterly in love with him, at the tender age of eleven. After that, she was blind to anyone else. Heath was a hero in her heart and mind, and she had vowed in her girlish dreams that he would be the only man she ever loved, which still held true today.
“Jenny, you’ve finished your errands quickly.”
Lost in her reverie, she jumped nearly out of her skin at her mother’s voice and the rocking of the buggy as she climbed in.
“That’s good, because I’d like to discuss something of import with you, young lady.”
She proceeded to scold her about her poor matrimonial decisions. Evidently, at the milliners, she’d run into one of her busybody friends—of which she had many—who had informed her that Jenny had given another gentleman the mitten just the day before.
“What’s this about you turning down Jedidiah Boyd’s suit?”
“He’s a friend, mama, but I don’t love him. We’ve discussed this.”
“You’ve got your head in the clouds, Jenny. It would have been a good match.”
“You loved papa when you married. Was your head in the clouds?”
“Don’t be impertinent.” They sat silently for a moment, Jenny noticing her mother’s unusual agitation. “I’d just like to see you settled, honey.”
“But don’t you want me settled and happy, mama?”
She nodded slowly, but then stiffened. “Where are your purchases, your shoes and the yard goods I asked you to fetch?”
“The store was very crowded, the line at the fabric counter too long. I was afraid we’d make papa wait and thought to come back another day.” The store had been quite busy; that was the only part that wasn’t a fib. That, and wanting to come back another day when Louise, Heath, and Mrs. Meyers weren’t there.
She gaped at her mother’s assumption. How could she know?
“Jennifer Lynn, you can’t fool your mama. Your face is flushed and your eyes are wet from tears.” She squeezed her hand. “You can tell me all about it when we get home. For now, march right back in there and buy what you need. Your papa and I can’t be traipsing back and forth to town because you have some bee in your bonnet.” When Jenny hesitated, she’d shooed her away impatiently. “Go on. I’ll be at Mrs. Mayhew’s checking on those new dresses we ordered. Lord knows at the rate you keep turning down proposals from all the eligible gentleman of Laramie, you’ll need to look your prettiest to attract another.”
Jenny had dutifully climbed down, hiding the rolling of her eyes, which would have irritated her mother more had she seen it. Three proposals in a year did not equate to ‘all the eligible gentlemen of Laramie.’ Nevertheless, it did no good to argue. Her mother had gotten some wild idea recently that if she didn’t marry by her twenty-first birthday, which was soon, she’d be a terminal spinster.
“Don’t dawdle now,” Mama called after her, obviously noting Jenny’s sluggish steps. “I won’t be long and we’re expected at the feed store soon to pick up your papa.”
Jenny nodded as she walked away, her path taking her down the planked boardwalk to the scene of her humiliation. She heard the horses behind her as her mama drove to the dressmaker’s shop a street over. For a moment, she thought of hiding out at the park down the way, as the thought of running into any of them—Heath, Louise, Mrs. Meyers, or poor Mr. Franks, who’d been left with her mess on his hands—was unendurable. But if she showed up empty-handed again, mama would be fit to be tied.
As she approached, she paused on the corner as Aaron Jackson exited with the pretty blonde on his arm. She’d heard the rumors in town that the marshal had married. She must be his new wife. Thankfully, they didn’t notice her and turned in the opposite direction.
A moment later, when Louise Meyers came out the door with her mother, Jenny quickly ducked into the small alley between the mercantile and the Laramie Sentinel, prepared to wait there in hiding, ‘til the second coming if need be, or until they left, whichever came first. As she watched, they climbed into an everyday, run-of-the-mill buggy. For her part, Jenny wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they mounted broomsticks and flew away. Managing a small giggle as that image popped in her head, she fell silent the next instant as their buggy began to move, turning westward. They were headed her way. She flattened herself along the side of the building, trying to make herself as small as possible. As they passed, however, Louise turned her head and made eye contact. Her mouth twisted into a cruel smile, more of an unsightly grimace actually, which changed her entire face from cool beauty into outright ugliness. A chill swept through her and Jenny murmured a prayer. The witch was pure evil and Jenny vowed to avoid her path.
That left Heath. At least he hadn’t witnessed the altercation with Louise and heard the awful names she’d been called, or learned about Jake Stewart. If he lingered in the store, she’d keep well away.
She retraced her steps, relieved that her shoes, the lengths of material, and the other items she’d selected earlier were where she left them. Gathering them up, she hurried toward the front to settle her account when masculine laughter drew her interest. Jenny had no doubt it was Heath; the husky rasp of his voice and the rich texture of his laugh were etched in her mind so fully, she could identify him blindfolded.
Eyes scanning, she tried to pinpoint his location. A flash of red caught her attention between the shelves. Dipping down a bit, she peeped through cans labeled peas and sugar beets and spotted him in the next aisle over. He moved and she saw the woman standing beside him, or at least the parts she could see between the shelves. In particular, the pleated bodice of dusky rose with a low neckline almost too daring for daytime wear. They were facing each other, standing very close, too close, and she’d be darned if the woman didn’t move closer. In fact, she leaned in until she brushed up against him, her bosom pressing against his chest—the hussy.
She heard their laughter, his low and soothing, hers in a higher shrill tone that grated on Jenny’s nerves. A fake laugh if she’d ever heard one. As she stood there, consumed by jealousy, they turned and walked away. Curious over the identity of her rival, she moved down the aisle and peeked around the end. It was Heath, most definitely, and Marion Jeffers. Blond curls arranged artfully atop her head, big blue eyes with long curly lashes, and ruby red lips curved upward in an alluring smile, in her mid to late thirties, Marion Jeffers was a very beautiful and charming woman. She was also a widow and a good friend of her mother and right now, she was flirting outrageously with Heath while waiting in line. Worse, he seemed to be eating it up with a spoon.
As devastated as she was, she was compelled to watch. His head was angled forward as he bestowed all of his handsomeness upon her. In turn, she batted her eyes and leaned in, once more pressing her upper works against him. When Heath put his hand on the small of her back and chuckled, Jenny turned away. It simply wasn’t fair to be in love with a man who barely knew of her existence. With her heart spasming painfully, she stood there contemplating the cruel intricacies of love and fate until a voice near her ear made her jump.
“Jenny?” Glancing to her side, she saw Jane Ivinson standing next to her. “I didn’t mean to startle you, dear, but you’ve been standing here for a while. Did you need help finding something?”
“No, ma’am.” Eyes shifting to her left, Jenny scanned the front counter. The pair had moved on. “I was reviewing my mental list to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything.”
“If you’re ready then—” She relieved Jenny of a few of the items that filled her arms. “I’ll get these things wrapped up for you. Those pretty half-boots are my favorite by the way, and that green fabric will be most becoming with your auburn hair and lovely green eyes. A dress for you, I hope.”
“Thank you, ma’am. Mama is already planning for Christmas.” She gave a hint of a smile, although the eagerness over the boots and material for a new dress had faded.
Back at home later that afternoon, she tiptoed down the rear stairs and out the door without her mother hearing. She started across the back yard, intent on visiting the horses and treating them to a slice or two of the apple she had filched from the basket by the back door. Jenny felt a pang of guilt knowing she should be helping get supper ready, but judging by the sounds of pots and pans banging together as she’d snuck by the kitchen, her mama’s mood hadn’t improved. The truth was she’d been irritated with her most of the afternoon, an unusual occurrence for her usually sweet-natured mother.
Angry male voices raised in disagreement caught her attention as she approached the barn. She recognized her papa’s voice instantly; he was arguing with another man. Their words became explosive, the volume of their quarrel rising to a shout. Not wanting to be seen, she pressed her back up against the barn wall and listened. It seemed hiding and eavesdropping was the order of the day for her. Improper and ill-mannered, true, but she couldn’t not listen now.
“I won’t do it!” Papa snapped, his tone more cross than she’d ever heard.
“I’m afraid you don’t have a choice, Eustace. It’s my way or risk everything on your own.”
“You heartless bastard.”
Jenny was stunned at her father’s words; cursing was so unlike him. The other man laughed, despite the profane insult.
“You think on what I’ve said. Talk it over with your lovely wife. Once you see reason, send word. I’ll take it from there.”
She heard footsteps and the creak of a saddle.
“I’ll give you three days to decide, before I take action. Good day, Eustace.”
Jenny caught a glimpse of the stranger as he rode out. A dandified man with a bushy mustache, he wore a tall hat and a crushed velvet jacket, of all things. She also noticed he wore a large red-stoned ring that flashed brightly in the sun. He was greatly out of place for riding in Laramie, or anywhere in southern Wyoming for that matter. Strangely, he left by a back trail rather than the lane, like everyone else.
A few minutes later, her pa stormed by on his way to the house, so lost in his anger he didn’t notice her standing by the door. As she watched him stomp across the yard, dread, cold and insidious, crept into her bones. Something was seriously wrong.