“Well, I’m about as done as I can be,” Laurie sighed, closing the third catalogue George had given her to peruse. She’d flipped through just about every section she could think of to locate the fashion she’d been charged with tracking down and had come up empty. Truth be told, she’d lost any focus on it somewhere in the middle of the first catalogue. There was a certain hum of dialogue going on in the small corners of her consciousness, and it was relentless. Laurie had spent an hour looking largely because she was trying very hard not to listen to it, tried to ignore the urge to forsake propriety and talk to George Temple. The fact that he always seemed to be somewhere nearby didn’t help matters, either. Laurie couldn’t tell if he was deliberately hovering or merely going about his own business.
Which is what she should be doing right now, she thought, pushing the catalogue to the side as if it were her last chance for salvation.
“I’m a lost cause, Mr. Temple,” she told him as he came out of the back room. “I don’t know what I’ll be telling my client, but I am indeed at a loss.”
“I wouldn’t say that,” he replied.
“Well, what would you say?” She turned to him in askance, hoped that her eyes did not show dark circles, and that her hair was still in place. “If I’m not able to deliver business, what sort of seamstress am I? I made a promise I can’t keep. What do I do?”
It was wonderful and disconcerting at the same time how a hundred different emotions could pass over his blue eyes in several seconds. He Laurie had recognized early on in their acquaintance that he was a deliberate man, not slow, and sometimes that made him appear intense…which made her shiver. She steeled herself for one of those shivers now as he deliberately approached her, watching her face before answering, the smile starting in his eyes before it ever reached his mouth.
“I usually tell them I can’t deliver. I tell them I tried, but I can’t…not in this instance. But I also try my best to make up for it.” His blue eyes seemed to focus on her for several long seconds. “You have to let them know they can’t expect impossiblities from you.”
Her heart did an inexplicable Irish jig. Steady, girl, she thought. Laurie took a deep breath. He was a foot taller then her, which brought her eye-level with his chest. She had to look away or…
“Oh no!” she gasped. Past his arm, she could see out of the large bay windows that fronted the store, framing a full view of the muddy hoof-worn street where carts and people and horses passed. She’d not have noticed the people passing, as many wore clothes covered in the same rusted grime that surrounded them; however, one large purple blob rose up out of nowhere from the left, a barque at sail with its feathered bonnet flying high in an ebb and flow of dusted cowboy hats. “I can’t see her today. Oh Mary and Joseph, I forgot completely about her and I have nothing ready…”
“What?” George asked, alarmed. “Who aren’t you ready for?”
“Mrs. Jenkins! I was supposed to do the final hemming for her dress this morning, and I have been so utterly flummoxed by this other client…” Laurie stammered. She could see Mrs Jenkins had paused to confront someone on the boardwalk across the way, but it was only a matter of time. She was headed this way because she must have gone by her own home and inquired and her helper, Josephine must have told her she would come to Temple’s. Laurie’s hand gripped George’s sleeve in panic. “Hide me. Please.”
“In the back?” George offered, pointing to the one door that led to the storage room. Laurie nodded.
“And if she asks for you…?” he whispered before he closed the door.
“I came here for materials and that you saw me leave but don’t know where I went,” she whispered back and squeezed into a space behind a pile of crates. “George!”
He opened the door again, expression puzzled.
“Thank you!” she told him in a stage whisper. That’s when the door bell jingled. George shut the door and Laurie spent the next several long minutes controlling her breathing.
Lorraine McGinty was sitting at the large walnut desk figuring out the bills and profit of her ranch for the month. She tapped her long nails on the desk as her memory took her to life three years ago. Her then husband, Robert, had been sitting at the very same desk, smiling at her frustration over figures.
“Lorraine, you need to learn how to keep the accounts. Some day, this will be your job; and you need to do it. It’s the only way to be sure you aren’t being cheated.” The words sounded hollow now. Little did either of them realize that three months later, he’d be dead.
“Miss McGinty.” Lorraine blinked away the memories.
“It’s near lunch time. Would you like me to fix something?”
“You go ahead and eat. I have a few errands to run in town; I’ll probably eat there.”
“Yes, ma’am. Would you like me or Gus to run some of those errands?”
“That’s all right, Sarah. You can finish up and take the rest of the day off, if you’d like.”
“Why, thank you, ma’am. I do have a few of my own errands to attend to.”
Lorraine smiled. Sarah had been in the McGinty family for more than 50 years. As a child, she trained to be Rose McGinty’s dresser when they lived in London. She was just as loyal to Lorraine as she had been to Robert’s mother.
The outside bell over the front door ring; and Lorraine heard Gus answer it.
“Miss McGinty, Senor Diaz is here to see you.”
“I’ll be there in a minute.” Ricardo Diaz was a fellow rancher–one of several who had their eye on her since Robert passed. Lorraine felt guilty; but she did enjoy the attention. Senor Diaz was a kind gentleman, very intelligent and distinguished.
“Senor Diaz. how nice to see you.” Ricardo took her hand and placed a light kiss on it.
“You are a most beautiful sight this afternoon.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I was wondering if you might join me for a buggy ride. The sun is bright and the breezes are refreshing.”
“As tempting as that might be, I have some errands I have to take care of in town.”
“I see. Not a problem. I understand. However, you must eat. Perhaps we can meet at Frenchie’s for a late lunch.”
“Well….alright. That is a bit expensive. I don’t mind going elsewhere.” Ricardo shook his head decisively.
“Money is not an issue when in the company of such beauty.”
Lorraine unwittingly blushed. She wasn’t used to such flowery speech. Not that men hadn’t made over her before. Ricardo was the first sincere man to so complement her. He obviously adored her.
“Then I will change my dress and meet you there around 1:00. Will that do?”
“Oh, yes, Senora McGinty. And thank you.” He bowed and followed Gus to the door.
Lorraine dashed upstairs to replace her current dress for one a bit more appropriate for lunch at Frenchie’s.
“Miss Belulah, I don’t know how to thank you,” Chloe stammered for the fifth time that evening. “This is more than I can ever repay you. Perhaps I can just borrow it for tomorrow night and then…”
“Oh, pshaw!” Belulah spurted, gesturing in a way that suggested that Chloe take that idea out of her head and toss it out the window. “Its takin’ up room in my chiffarobe and I ain’t gonna ever use it myself. Don’t know if Rosalie is ever gonna need a dress like that, but when she does, I think it will be too old fashioned for her. But it looks perfect on you, child! Every head will be turning and every man will be linin’ up!”
There hadn’t been much time to sit and dwell on all the infuriating points Mrs Jenkins had laid in her lap because the kitchen help needed Belulah’s attention and Rosalie wanted her to play in the front yard. After dinner, Chloe found herself pulled into the boarding house keeper’s room to look over some dresses she had acquired over the years. Belulah was vague about where they had come from, although she made it a point to say none of them had been the former teacher’s. One sweet little forget-me-not blue dress fit Chloe the best, and before she knew what to expect, Belulah had declared it her gift as a dress to wear to the dance.
“Don’t think I could handle that kind of attention, Belulah,” Chloe laughed in embarrassment. “I was never much for showy stuff.”
“Then, think of it as a welcoming present,” Belulah encouraged, a glint in her eyes that told Chloe that she’d be stepping in cow patties if she protested any further.
“All right,” the new schoolteacher of Tucson Arizona conceded. “I’d be happy to wear it.”
“It’s settled, then!” Belulah declared happily. “You spend tomorrow enjoying yourself, and getting to know Tucson a little bit, ‘cause come Monday, all the young-un’s are gonna be wanting to know what you’ve got in store for them.”
When she was back in her room, the night had shuttered the window with black, and the sound of a tinkling piano drifted through the air from a neighboring tavern. Chloe hung up the dress and gazed at it for several minutes. It was possibly the richest gift she’d ever received. For the first time in a long time, she felt as if there was a bit more brightness in the future…maybe even a little hope for something meaningful. She dared not hope it that meaning would be encompassed in a more masculine frame…but it was nice to contemplate.
After saying her prayers, Chloe drifted off to sleep thinking of Virgil’s mustache and dreamt of a loneliness prowling the streets, homeless and unfocused. Somewhere in the night, a coyote called.