Friday evening, First Week
“Thanks for coming with me at such short notice,” he said. Mattie laughed.
“Now what girl would pass up the chance to be escorted by one of the Earps?”
“Apparently Lorraine. I just have to realize she’s available and a wonderful woman. Of course there’ll be more than one man wanting to court her.”
“She’s a good person.”
“And so aren’t you. Now, shall we get something to eat before we dance?”
“You read my mind,” she smiled.
There was a large section of seats circling the platform. Grady walked along the outer edge of the seats and made his way to the table serving beer. He paid for his drink and approached a table in the back. Before he could sit down, he saw Peaches sashaying in his direction. Grady figured she wasn’t coming his way just to say “Hi”. His experience was that a pretty girl approaching him usually had an ulterior motive.
And Peaches was a gorgeous creature. The deep blue dress she chose offset her auburn hair beautifully. Her smile was flirtatious and her green eyes were full of mischief.
“Hello,” Peaches purred.
“Howdy,” Grady replied. “What can I do for you?”
“You can buy me a drink,” she suggested.
“Okay. Then what?” Peaches was taken aback.
“What do you mean?”
“I’ll get you a drink and thoroughly enjoy any conversation we have. But what is the eventuality? What are you looking for?” She felt a bit nervous and didn’t like it. This gambler was trying to take control of the situation.
“A few dances and some company for the night.”
“Okay. That sounds good to me.” Grady returned with a beer. Instinct told him she was after more than a dance partner. But he guessed he could worry about that later. “I’m not much of a dancer,” he warned her. Peaches smiled, feeling in control again.
“I’m not either. We’ll muddle through it and have a great time.”
“That’s a nice set of teeth you’ve got there. Not too many saloon girls still have their teeth.” It was one of the more bizarre compliments she had been given.
“Thank you. You have a rather nice set yourself,” she countered.
“Yeah, but mine aren’t real,” he smiled widely. Of course, his teeth WERE real; but he enjoyed seeing the corners of her mouth freeze and the slight twitch of panic in her lovely eyes. He took a few swallows of beer and jumped up, extending his hand. “Let’s dance.”
Tom insisted on getting them something to eat while Ann sat and watch the dance floor. She smiled happily. This was the Tom she longed for, the Tom she married 7 years ago. But even as she felt uplifted she knew it was a momentary joy. Should his good mood last through the night, tomorrow he’d be back working for Mr. Connor and hating it. Ann sighed. Worrying about tomorrow wouldn’t make tonight better. She smiled again, determined to enjoy tonight.
“John, I can’t believe you’ve been to so many places!” she exclaimed with envy. “What was your favorite?”
“Honestly, every one of them has its own beauty, memories, smells, sounds. I don’t think I could choose a favorite.”
“Yet, you keep returning to Old Tucson.” John smiled.
“Yes, I do. As much as I enjoy traveling, it’s always nice to come home where it’s quieter. Maybe I wouldn’t feel that way if I had someone to travel with. I think when you share experiences you get more out of them. You must have good memories with Robert.”
“Oh, yes. And you’re right. Some of the most common place events became memorable because he was with me.”
“I sense we’re getting a bit maudlin. Would you like to dance?” Lorraine laughed and nodded appreciatively.
George looked down at his dance partner. The mischief in Laurie’s voice never failed to make him smile. They sat amid chairs that had long ago lost their precision lines facing the dance dais, turned this way and that so revelers at rest could converse. Most of the social butterflies of the evening had drifted away, either to the local restaurants, or saloons, while the more enthusiastic stayed behind to cheer on another reel or polka. Fortunately, most of them did not diminish the bubble of space he had chosen to settle in: they could speak privately themselves without worry of noise or interference.
“Is this a challenge?” he asked with wide grin. She nodded enthusiastically. The dew she had collected this evening made her eyelashes seem thicker, and little damp tendrils of auburn curls lined her face. She was so enticing he leaned closer before he thought about it, and why not? She’d fit perfectly into his dance embrace – it seemed unnatural now to pretend they couldn’t touch because of etiquette. His arm encircled her along the back of her chair as he murmured, “be careful what you wish for, Laurie. I am not exactly what I appear. I’ve been known to wear out the dance boards when I set my mind to it.”
“You appear to have underestimated me,” Laurie rejoined, not budging an inch. “I’ve not shown my true Irish nature.”
“Is that so?”
“Well, then I take up your challenge,”and made to rise, but she pulled him down with a laugh.
“I’ve a bit of Irish in reserve myself,” he teased.
“Not yet!” she declared. She patted his arm to indicate she was perfectly happy to remain where she was and George found he had no intention of changing her mind on that. His arm returned to the back of the chair and they both sat, suddenly quiet.
“Do you…” she began
“I was think…” he began.
They both laughed.
“Ladies first,” he told her. “Go on.”
“Do you have any other talents besides dancing, George?” The way she asked it was in perfect innocence, but it took every bit of control he suddenly needed to have to keep the smile from dropping. Did she really want him to answer that? He shifted awkwardly for a moment, trying to think of something lighthearted, but the image of a gun passing with one smooth elegant motion from its holster to his hand blocked it out.
“Well, according to Mrs. Kingsley, I have a talent for ordering dresses,” he managed to offer.
“Saints preserve us, do not speak her name!” Laurie said with exaggerated alarm. “She’ll hear you and come to order more.”
“I’ll tell her that all I have left are mourning weeds.”
“And she’ll make us all wear them,” Laurie replied.
“I can order paint, too, you know,” George said. “Us men will stand on the side of the street and as you ladies pass, we’ll toss great globs of color. Sure, an’ t’will be a veritable rainbow to make even a leprechan proud,” he added in perfect imitation of her accent.
Laurie’s laugh rang out at the outlandish idea.
“I’ve a few tricks up my sleeve,” George admitted, as he savored the sound. He slipped his hand over hers, grasped her fingers in a way much more intimate than while they were dancing. His heart thumped. She didn’t pull away. “But…”
“But…” she continued the trailing sound of his voice when he paused.
“But…” he hesitated. Their faces were inches apart now, and he couldn’t keep his eyes from traveling to her lips. “I wasn’t always a mercantile owner.”
As if sensing that there was uncertainty on his part, Laurie reached up and brushed away a stray bead of perspiration from his forehead. Her eyes were full of light.
“Its all right,” she whispered.
It wasn’t a conscious cue, but his mind was ready to take it: he leant forward and kissed her. All that existed after that was her warm response.
Virgil stared at the clock tower for several moments in disbelief. Had two hours really gone by so quickly? Revelers had danced until they couldnt breathe anymore, the band had played one reel after another, and no one had been in the slightest mood to be anything but happy for the chance to kick up their heels and enjoy the music. Belulah had made a brief appearance, so he had taken advantage of that and danced with her for a couple of songs, then poked more fun at Morgan; danced with a few other ladies, and hell, even Mrs Kingsley behaved herself (sort of), who refrained from the usual indictments of his character in escorting the new school teacher (at least to his face.) Chloe showed a bit of spunk when a group of six rough men begged in the best manners they could manage for a dance with her. She made them promise to behave and line up like school children in an orderly fashion; in turn, she promised to give half a song to each of them. None of them abused the privilege. If anything, the person Chloe courted argument with was Mrs. Kingsley. She shocked them all by laughing in the society matron’s face as she scowled. All in all, his brothers and fellow deputies had reported, the evening was a rousing success with nothing more contentious than who would dance with the new arrival to town, Miss Garnet Barrett. It was almost unbelievable how fast the evening had gone before the band announced its own retirement and closed up their instruments. Now people were drifting away, either to the saloons (where there was still a chance for mischief to be made) or to their own homes…and Chloe was leaning heavily on his arm, in a state of bliss that made her eyes as dreamy as the clouds passing over the moon above. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so happy, so he dared to pull her a little closer. Maybe if he willed it, that clock would stop for a little bit so he could enjoy things a little longer…
“The dances here are wonderful!” he heard her exclaim as they stood watching the dispersal of the crowd.
“Sometimes they’re a bit more rambunctuous,” Virgil admitted. His eyes slid from the clock tower to the lamplit shadows of a nearby veranda. Some people were hovering there, and he got a tingling notion in his bones that they were being watched. His hand automatically pushed his frock coat out of the way of his holster. He didn’t know how much liquor had made it into the punch – its usual effects could cut loose any minute now. He shouldn’t relax just yet, Virgil reminded himself. “You just never know what’s going to happen.”
“Things could get lively back home,” Chloe said, and a yawn broke out. “But none of it was this…joyous.” She laughed as she added, “I certainly never got that much attention!”
“You were the belle of the ball,” he told her, feeling a certain pride in that fact. “If there were any doubts that you were the new teacher, I think you settled it.”
“Yeah, well, we’ll see when the children come on Monday. There won’t be any guns to keep them in line,” she said. Virgil grimaced. She’d seen his subtle move to prepare for action.
She was silent for a few minutes, then said, “I guess it’s time to go on back.” Her voice was tinged with sadness. “Do you have to stay…?”
That veranda was bothering him. His eyes kept going to one of the figures standing on the edge of the boards, face hidden by the dark. Its shape and stance seem to draw his attention in an odd way. He looked down at Chloe to see that her eyes had drifted to the veranda as well, a faint shade of doubt clouding her face.
“I’d be remiss if I didn’t see you safely returned to Belulah’s. She’d make sure I ate something fierce and unpleasant the next morning,” he told her, covering her small hand with his long paw to reassure her. “Miss Grey, it has been my pleasure to have spent this evening with you. I hope you will grant me that pleasure once more.”
“At the next dance?”
“At the next time we meet,” he grinned down at her.
“I hope that’s soon,” Chloe said, and her eyes were sparkling as she looked up at him. Her hand squeezed his fingers and Virgil suddenly felt a need to get her back to the boarding house swiftly. In the corner of his eye, the watchful figure had stepped down into the street, fading into the dark nearby. A man of lesser instinct would have dismissed that right then, but Virgil had spent his life honing awareness. He kept up a cheerful chatter as they walked, but by the time they made it to the gate of Belulah’s house, Virgil was certain that they had been followed…and that one mysterious figure had grown to five.
Grady and Peaches were dancing. He had just finished hinting that his hair wasn’t real; and stifled a laugh when her eyes grew wide. He could almost hear the gears in her brain churning. How badly did she want to leave Old Tucson? Apparently bad enough because her grip on his hand didn’t lighten and there was still a smile on her face.
“Okay,” Grady said, once the dance ended. “I need to sit down.”
“I could use a drink myself,” Peaches conceded. Grady brought back fresh beers.
“You are a very spirited dancer,” he observed.
“Thank you. You aren’t bad yourself.”
“Oh, by the way, these are my real teeth.”
“And, yes, my hair is mine, too.”
“What in the world?”
“I’m sorry. I had to do it,” he apologized. Peaches’ eyes were filled with mixed emotions. “I was curious just how desperate you were that you’d run off with a bald, toothless man.” Instead of being angry, she dropped her head on the table with a thud.
“I am pathetic.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way.”
“Pathetic and shallow.”
“You have your reasons. Trust me, I wasn’t judging you. I just don’t want you ruining your life.” Peaches looked up.
“Too late,” she said with disgust. “Look around you.” Grady shrugged.
“It doesn’t seem like such a bad life. There are harder ways to live.”
“I know that. I’m trying to improve my life—not make it worse and not stand in the same spot. Is there something wrong with that?”
“No-o-o. Not in theory. But a person has to understand what’ll make them happy.”
“I already know,” Peaches snapped. “I want to travel. I want to wear nice clothes and eat good food.”
“Who do you want to do all those things with?”
“With the next rich man who crosses my path.”
“Peaches, what if the next rich man doesn’t love you?”
“Love? What’s that got to do with anything?”
“You’d marry a man whether you loved him or not?” She glared at him coldly. “Oh, okay….you’d travel with a man whether you loved him or not?” Peaches’ frown got deeper. “Oh. Lord! You’d travel alone and spend a man’s money whether you loved—oh, shoot, at that point, obviously nobody loves anybody!”
“Exactly! He goes his way and I go mine—with enough money to make my dreams come true. It’s perfect!” Grady had to laugh. He was certain that wasn’t what she really wanted.
“All that money and all that good food will get boring if you haven’t anyone to share the experience with. Trust me, I know.”
“I guess I could keep you company…as long as you don’t try to boss me around.”
“No. I’m looking for a woman I can love and marry.” Peaches narrowed her pretty eyes and pulled the side of her mouth up in disbelief.
“Are you turning me down?”
“For your own good. Your picture of life is great. You need to find someone you care for to share it with. You’ll never be happy alone. You know how I know that?”
“How, smart man?”
“I’ve known women who are loners. They prefer their own company. Nothing wrong with that. Now look at the situations you willing put yourself in. Work at a saloon with other girls, sit at poker tables and talk to customers poorer than you, go to dances—no one rich here. I don’t care what you say. I can see you enjoy your life. Sure you may want to make it better. But you don’t want to do it alone.”
Peaches just stared at him. How could he be right? She dreamed of the day she could be alone doing what she wanted. He was right about one thing. She liked talking to Rosalind and Seth and the others. And she did enjoy the dances. Oh, CRAP, she thought. How could this two-bit gambler know her better than she knew herself? Yet, everything he said made sense.
“I hope you’re proud of yourself. Busting a girl’s dreams.”
“Don’t ever give up on your dreams, Peaches. Just plan them out better. Don’t be in such a hurry.” Peaches sighed deeply. “Something else you have to consider. What if that ‘rich man’ is also a ‘bad man’?”
“I can take care of myself.” But her voice didn’t carry the conviction she wanted it to.
“Just think about it, okay? Hey, how about one last dance?”
“Why not?” she said, throwing up her arms in surrender.