Too damn early, too damn bright. Tommy winced and squirmed his way back into the sunlight outside the saloon after a cup of Arbuckle and a semi-human farewell to his companion of the night. He’d need about ten dozen cups of coffee to alleviate the barrel fever in his head. Still, if he was going to get the jump on what it was he came to Tucson for, he couldn’t dillydally much longer. As nice and comforting as the saloon girl had been, Tommy didn’t want to waste time.
He had to track down the rascals that had set him up on the raid yesterday…or was it the day before? Aw, hell. What was he thinking? They’d be clear into Mexico by now and he had no horse of his own. As much as he turned it over in his mind, as much as he hated the idea, Tommy was going to have to admit defeat and find a way to get back to San Francisco. Rabbi Abram had found him a job there, or so he’d wired.
Bleary-eyed, Tommy surveyed the street in front of him, wondering what time it was. The sun was rising up behind the clock tower so he couldn’t see. Stepping down he prepared to make his way across the street, maybe to go to the stagecoach office, get the price of the next coach out of town. No use staying around here, not when the ring of marshals had their beady eyes on him.
And he would have made it to the stagecoach office without one single glance back if it hadn’t been the sight of the gold halo of yesterday, the pretty doll that had caught his eye…only this time, she wasn’t placidly gazing about, but standing stiff in fear and defiance of three men, grimy and threatening, surrounding her…
Tommy’s lips hardened in fury and his hand went to the holster at his side. Not only were they bulldozing the young woman, he recognized one of them as being part of the group that had bilked and framed him!
That bushwacker must have seen him too ‘cause jostled the leader’s elbow and the three of them side-winded away like snakes. He had a choice: chase after them, or help her.
Chivalry won. Tommy strode to meet her on the sidewalk as she tried to move away with as much dignity as the encounter had allowed. Her face was flushed and her expression was that of a woman trying hard not to break down.
“’Scuse me, miss, was they hurtin’ you?” Tommy asked her, stepping up beside her so as not to scare her. She flinched anyway, then recovered, and he held up his hands to show he meant no harm. “Don’t mean no harm, I promise. If I’d have seen them just one second sooner, I’d have taken care of them for you.”
It struck him how much it hurt to see the pain and fear in her expression as she turned beautiful blue eyes upon him, golden ringlets framing her delicate face. She was an angel from the sweetest part of heaven, he decided right then and there.
“Honest, ma’am. I can go after them, if you want,” he added, feeling that he’d knock down every building in town to beat them for putting that expression on her face. “Were they threatening you? Who were they?”
“Mr Earp, what brings you to a ladies hat shop this early in the morning?” Chloe asked as they both stepped outside of the millinery. Sarah had disappeared, and the dusty street was busier.
“I came to see how you were adjusting to life in ol’ Tucson,” he replied.
“Well, I think,” Chloe replied. She couldn’t help but smile whenever she saw the bushy mustache. He towered over her like a lean tree. “I’ve only just begun to explore it.”
“I expect half the town introduced itself by now,” he said, laughing.
“Mrs. Kingsley did,” Chloe replied. Virgil rolled his eyes and groaned. “I’m sure you can imagine how that went.”
“Don’t let her dishearten you, now,” he advised. “And count your blessings her own children are in boarding school. She may interfere, but by herself, she can’t stand up to the other mamas’ in the town. They have no qualms reminding her how things should be run.”
“That’s good to know,” she laughed. “I hadn’t made any real plans for today, Mr. Earp, but I think now I’d like to visit the schoolhouse. To get a feel for it before things start. Can you take me there?”
“Already? I’d have thought you’d be planning for more social things,” he indicated and with that an odd awkwardness seemed to come over him. Unfortunately, at that moment, a small group of men and women chanced to meet them on the sidewalk and they had to both sidestep and proceed past them before Chloe could ask,
“Social, Mr. Earp?”
“Sure…like the dance this Friday. You knew about the dance, didn’cha?”
“Oh! Yes…” Somehow she could guess what would come next and her nerves jumped into high gear. Virgil was a handsome man, no doubt about that…and she liked the idea of leaning on his arm as they went out on the dance floor, but…hadn’t she proclaimed to both Mrs. Kingsley and Belulah that she had no intention of encouraging any beau? It irked her to know her private life would be under such scrutiny; it irked her even more to realize she could already be distracted by the attentions of an attractive, albeit older, gentleman.
She’d nearly lost the chance to teach in Spring Creek because of a beguiling face and charming person. He wanted to marry her. He’d been very persuasive! But because of friends, she’d learned of his faithlessness, and chosen to remain a teacher. Had she taken him at his word, she’d have faced a much different future…and after losing her parents, the loss of livelihood could not be borne.
“I’ve heard people talking,” she demurred.
“Will you be going?”
“I have a dress all picked out and everything,” she told him. “Ms. Belulah found a lovely one for me. I was just at the milliner’s to find a bonnet to go with it.”
“She’s a fine woman,” Virgil said and suddenly seemed to get nervous. He took off his hat, fiddled with its edge, and fixed her with his intense eyes.
Uh oh, Chloe thought.
“I’d be honored to escort you, Miss Grey,” Virgil announced, his deep voice hopeful in spite of its matter-of-fact honesty. “If you’ll allow it.”
They were stopped now in a space between buildings, where a group of children played with hoops and wood pistols in the shade. Chloe shoved aside her misgivings: in spite of her reservations, it was unladylike to be rude and ungracious. Virgil did not seem to have the expectation of gratitude – she sensed he would be dreadfully hurt by the implication – but the debt Chloe felt had a strong factor in her reply. She liked Virgil, liked the way he carried himself with dignity and quiet assurance. She also felt she would step into unstable territory by accepting his offer. It could lead to…dangerous…things.
“You’ve been so kind in welcoming me here,” she began, and she could see the hope die a little in his eyes. “I’ve never had a deputy ask me to a dance,” she added, hastily, feeling more clumsy by the moment. Her mama had tried to teach her every social grace she knew, even on the farm, but surprise left Chloe a bit wordless. “I look forward to it,” she concluded, before egregious babble made its way out of her mouth.
He beamed down at her. The answer was apparently good enough to satisfy him. Hmmm. Maybe an evening watching the sunset while he talked softly to her would loosen her heart…?
“What time should I be ready?” she asked.
“People gather and collect all afternoon, but the music doesn’t start until sunset,” Virgil replied, after returning his hat to his head. “If you can be ready by 6 pm, I will be by with a phaeton.”
“Then it shall be done,” Chloe agreed. “Now,” she went on, as they resumed their walk upon the boardwalk, “how far is it to the school house?”