Candon, Tarrant County, TEXAS - 1900
Audra's misery did not come upon her suddenly. It had increased over the long train trip from Wyoming to Texas, spoiling what could have been a great adventure.
But she had never been a young lady to embrace adventures, even those found in novels. And ever since the scandal, she hardly deserved a happy ending.
No, she had silently suffered for days now. Only when she watched her father sling his saddlebags into the rented buggy, to leave without her, did the ache grow truly unbearable.
She could not do this!
But when he turned back to her, she needed only look at his stoic, weathered face to know that she could do whatever it took. Poor Papa. Despite what some people said about cattlemen, he had strong principles. He did not deserve the shame she had brought upon the family. No matter what he said, they would fare better without her, these next long months.
And as Aunt Heddy had pointed out--here where nobody knew her past, Audra had a better chance of regaining respectability.
Papa came to her one last time with his awkward walk, the walk of a man who preferred sitting a horse, and stood with his hat in his hand. "Audra," he said solemnly.
The air she breathed seemed too warm for October, and she felt her heart break. "Papa..."
"You say the word; I would be pleased to escort you home."
Yes! I want my mother and sisters. Take me home, Papa! But no. He'd spent time and money bringing her here in the first place. And she had accepted a position here, given her word.
"This is a good thing, Papa," she insisted, forcing her words around the ache. "I can start fresh here. They'll let me teach. You know...you know I've always wanted to teach."
Papa scowled. "I regret not killin' that Connors boy."
"No!" Audra raised a hand to her father's white-bearded cheek. "He didn't--You did right, Papa. You have always done right by me. It's me who...who failed..."
He covered her hand with his callused palm. "I will not hear that talk, Audra Sue. You are a good girl. Always have been." He took a deep breath, deliberately looked away from her. "Reckon you'll make me proud in Texas, surely as you done up north."
Audra curled into her father's broad chest for a last embrace, fighting tears. He smelled of soap, horses, leather--and faintly of the tobacco he smoked on the sly to annoy her mother. The arms he belatedly drew around her felt powerful enough even now to fight Indians or lead cattle drives, as he had in his youth. But she didn't deserve him. She'd done wrong. She hardly knew how...but she'd known the rules of society, and she'd broken one. She deserved this exile.
"You have money for the telegraph," Papa reminded her. "Send word; I'll be here within the week. Weather permittin'."
"Yessir," promised Audra.
She nodded. If only she'd managed that back home!
He straightened, stiff, away from her--even the hug, here in the open, had been surprising for Papa. Then he nodded at her and turned back to the buggy, swung up onto the seat. He would drive it back to Grapevine, catch the train, then continue to Fort Worth, to Denver, to...home.
"Hedda," he acknowledged as he took up the reins.
Audra's widowed Aunt Heddy stood beside the clapboard home where Audra would stay. "The girl will be safe here," she assured her brother stiffly--perhaps it was a family trait. "This may be Texas, Jacob, but we're a good farming community. Respectable as they come."
Papa paused with a faintly distasteful expression and suddenly, through her cloying misery, Audra wanted to laugh. As if the society of sodbusters would comfort a rancher! Papa's gray eyes warmed back at her. He understood.
"Ladies," he said as a fare-thee-well, clucking the rented horse to work, and drove away. Audra wondered if she could die from homesickness, and if perhaps that would be a blessing.
Aunt Heddy would not let her watch until he vanished. "Best get to work, Child," she said. "We've boarder students to prepare for. Idle hands are the devil's playground."
Audra winced at the veiled criticism, but she obeyed. She would do whatever it took to make good here.
This time, she would follow the rules.
When the first gales of the blue norther walloped him upside the head, Jack better understood his recent loss at the Dallas racetrack--a poor eye for speed and distance. He'd gambled that his bay mare Queen--Queen of Hearts, named after the card that won her--could make the next town toward Fort Worth before the weather turned.
But Jack tended to overestimate chances and underestimate odds. Risk gave his career at cards the stability of a dancing drunk, but it did keep things fun. And Handy Jack Harwood appreciated fun even more than he enjoyed a good game.
Not that he'd had much fun since riding out of Dallas. Especially now that the real storm, not just the buffeting wind, hit with unseasonable, icy rain.
He didn't bother kicking Queen into a lope. He'd ridden her hard enough already today, hoping to find amidst all these truck farms a town with the sense to keep a saloon, or at least a billiard hall. No such luck. Now Jack scanned the scrubby trees and fields on either side of the dirt road through a veil of rain. Despite the cold, he dismissed the first house he saw as too neat. The barn beside and behind it stood in equally good repair, complete with double doors that looked to be--he squinted now--firmly latched. Whatever paragons lived there would either label his innocent visit as trespassing or take him in, feed him, then read from the Bible in the sorry hope of saving his soul.
No, he would rather freeze to death atop this here mare.
The next building Jack approached had a sight more personality--two log cabins separated by a roofed space called a "dog run." Shuttered windows gave him hope the occupants might be away. At least that dog run would give him and Queen the shelter that man and beast so desperately needed in this weather. At most, he'd find coal in the shed and no locks on the door.
Jack reined Queen toward the cabin, out of the gully-washer and into a pocket of calm. Rain pounded on the roof over them and blew in on either side, but otherwise kept at bay.
Jack dismounted with a creak of saddle leather and took off his black hat, pounding it against the side of his thigh a few times to rid it of excess water. Then he saw the bell.
His breath stilled. A church?
Then his senses returned. If there was one thing these hard-working, God-fearing, temperance-minded farmers did right, it was their white-steepled churches. No, old homestead must be a school. Determined to settle the notion and his unease, both, Jack climbed the puncheon steps to one of the two doors that flanked his shelter. He pulled the latch, glanced in.
He'd found a schoolhouse, all right, and more.
Desks and blackboards caught his notice, true. But only while his gaze skimmed to a lamp in the corner and to a girl--a young lady--standing in its glow, half-turned at his entrance.
She had hair of a sorrel color, pulled back and up, unlike a schoolgirl's. Her fringed, pale eyes widened at him and her lips parted in delicate surprise. The place wasn't empty after all. Not by a long shot. Nothing containing as pretty a thing as her could ever be termed "empty."
Since he already had his hat in hand, Jack smiled his most charming smile and made a polite bow. "Ma'am."
And the pretty gal said, "You are tracking mud on my floor, Sir. I'd thank you to leave."
To Audra's relief, the man in her schoolroom's doorway smiled at her a moment longer, then stepped right back out and even shut the door against the rain. A man. And her alone! Had he not left muddy tracks, she might think she'd created him from her fears of doing something wrong. But he had left tracks. When she put down her chalk and ventured to the doorway, she saw that he'd also left drippings of water.
Though she dared not admit it to her aunt, Audra had never scrubbed a floor in all her sixteen years before today. But neither had she dismissed a stranger before he could even say what he wanted, and that made her feel dirtier than the floor. He didn't frighten her. She'd grown up on a ranch amidst rough cowboys; in comparison, this man had looked rather endearing...and very wet. When she told him to leave, he'd gone without protest. Out into the cold.
The wind beat at the walls of the schoolroom and rain drummed, hard, against the roof and shutters. To leave a stranger outside in weather like this seemed wrong. But to let him in, unchaperoned, went against the rules. She ought not risk even the illusion of misconduct.
The misery that had only begun to fade, after several days of acute homesickness, gnawed anew at Audra's insides. What to do? Even Aunt Heddy saw no harm in Audra staying behind to ready her half of the two-room schoolhouse for tomorrow's new term. But neither had anyone seen harm in Audra taking a buggy ride alone with a man who was practically her fiancé.
For months before she left Wyoming, people had stared at her. The school board had rescinded their offer of a teaching position there. Remembering all that, Audra turned dutifully back toward the blackboard to finish preparing for tomorrow. Men could fend for themselves.
Then she remembered how mild the Texas weather had been until now. How wet the man had looked. How dangerous storms could become, without shelter....
Resigned, Audra hurried to the door and opened it to call the man back. Wind snatched it out of her grip to bang against the outside wall, full-open.
A blanketed bay horse, drop-reined near the end of the dog run, danced back with a snort of fear. The stranger stared up from where he had made a seat of his saddle against the opposite wall--Aunt Heddy's side of the school--with his collar up around his ears, his hat pulled low, and what looked to be playing cards in his hands. Then he stood and caught the door before the wind could slam it the other direction.
Suddenly Audra did feel threatened by his nearness, not for her safety or her reputation so much as for...what? He was behaving himself, wasn't he? And he was no vagrant. Since the Panic of '93, Audra's mother had fed her share of hobos, but not a one as clean-shaven or well-dressed as this dark-haired stranger. Under an impeccably cut frock-coat, he wore a fine, white-ruffled shirt and string tie, both limp with damp. The wet made the texture of his coat, shirt, and even his skin--which threw off its own warmth--somehow more tangible than seemed proper.
Even as they stood there, a bracing burst of wind misted them both. She could hardly blame him for the wet!
Perhaps she distrusted his charming smile, or the amusement lacing his dark eyes.
"Ma'am," the stranger greeted, brushing his hat brim with his free hand. If he truly had held cards, they'd vanished. "My apologies for spooking you. I needed shelter through the worst of this-here blow-up, but I did not intend to...intrude."
Her doorway stood at the top of three steps, placing her bodice at an indiscreet level to his head. Despite the rain, Audra flushed at that realization. She took a deep, steadying breath, but his eyes widened at that and her face just got hotter. Oh dear. This was not going well.
Thank goodness the man looked away, if belatedly, toward his mare. But even then his eyes sparked like a pine fire and his mouth twitched against less-than-appropriate humor.
Audra swallowed. "I have more chores to complete," she told him in her best ladylike tone. "When I finish, you may come in. Be careful not to track in too much mud, if you will. School starts tomorrow, and I have worked very hard to make my room neat and attractive."
Oh dear. That did not sound controlled so much as rude. Should she apologize? But she ought not be talking to him at all, should she? They had not been introduced!
"And you've done a fine job, Ma'am," assured the stranger, sliding his bright gaze back to her. "Things are most assuredly neat...and attractive."
Her already tight throat clenched. He did mean the room, didn't he? If not, she should slap his handsome face for such boldness. Torn between suspicion and the injustice of false accusation, Audra chose to ignore his comment and pulled the door shut again, wind or no wind.
Then she sank against it. There! Surely that satisfied the requirements for proper behavior...didn't it? If she ruined her reputation here--in under a week!--what hope did she have?
Either Jack found the lady colder than this north wind, or about the prettiest piece of calico he'd set eyes upon. Could be both, her being a schoolmarm and all. Except that when she'd stood there, dictating the conditions of her hospitality, he'd not thought her dove-gray eyes cold at all. He'd thought them vulnerable, even frightened. That look called to something deep in his gut, something old and painful that he'd rather not pay mind to.
He might not have a say in the matter.
And why wouldn't she be frightened? Though barely old enough to teach, if he called it right, the gal was obviously a lady. Although Jack patronized establishments where ladies' names ought not be spoken, he'd seen enough of the world to know a few of their ways and guessed at more. He couldn't resent her loftiness any more than he'd managed to stop admiring her figure.
A fine, fine figure, indeed. Understated. Elegant.
He fingered the pocketed cards he'd been shuffling to keep his fingers limber out here in the cold, and he wondered why he'd never had truck with a real lady before. Other than the obvious fact of his profession, that is....
Then he gathered his few belongings. "Reckon I might get some shelter after all," he told his mare as he waited, warming his fingers in her breath, listening to the rain.
Queen was still nuzzling his hands, looking for a treat that wouldn't show this evening, when the door from the schoolroom opened again. The horse's head came up, immediately alert--same as Jack's--but this time the schoolmarm held on against the pull of the wind. She wore a blue cape now, and gloves, and a wary expression similar to Queen's.
"Ma'am," greeted Jack, keen to soothe that wariness. "I appreciate your hospitality."
"Just this side," she instructed quickly. She bit her lower lip, then seemed to notice and released it. It was a gem of a lip. "That is...I cannot allow you into the other building."
Jack nodded, wondered how he could put her at ease. Before he could figure something up, though, the gal spoke again.
"I should be obliged..." She paused, then hurried on. "I should appreciate it if you would avoid mention of meeting me, Sir. People might..." She looked down at her gloves and said the last word, very small, "talk."
She might have announced the end of civilization, solemn as she said it. The effect plain tickled him.
"Now surely a lady of learning like yourself wouldn't suggest I lie," teased Jack, smiling--then regretted it.
"Of course not!" she exclaimed, taking a step back as if from the force of his accusation. "I never lie! I just...I mean...."
Her eyes grew so large that only his curiosity as to what she did mean kept him from an immediate apology.
"Sometimes it does seem prudent to not tell the whole truth," she insisted hopefully. "Unless asked, of course. That does not truly count as lying. Does it?"
"No ma'am," he assured her, not really caring what was the truth, simply wanting her eyes to stop aching like that. "Seems to me that's plain good sense. Why burden folks with needless information? That's what I'd say, anyhow."
The wind fluttered escaped strands of hair across her face and yanked at the door she held. Hardly noticing, she simply yanked back. "Would you really?" she asked, hopeful.
He nodded up at her, careful to look his most believable.
And then she smiled, and it was a smile of beauty, of salvation. That smile could soothe away pain, warm nights far colder than this one, and tempt a fellow away from sin itself.
All of which made ladies right dangerous, indeed--but at that moment, Jack was lost. He stepped forward to brace the door so that she could stop struggling with it, offered up his free hand. "The name's Harwood, Ma'am. John Harwood."
Though when he'd last used the name John, he couldn't remember. He'd been "Handy Jack" for so long now....
For the first time in years, he had no inclination to proudly announce that.
Her gloved fingertips touched his. By time she'd descended the stairs, her smile had vanished as if perhaps she weren't certain how to maintain it. Or, just as likely, if she should.
His hand tingled from her touch.
"Thank you, Mr. Harwood," she said. Even without the smile, he no longer found her cold at all, just careful. Whoever she was. She didn't tell him her name.
In fact, she'd asked him to never mention this meeting....
He could see the shackles of propriety behind that request clear enough. And if only to keep that pain out of her dove-like eyes, he meant to honor it, even if he wasn't much of a man to follow any rules outside the Book of Hoyle...and sometimes bent a few of those.
Still, he prodded, "And you would be, Ma'am...?"
She pulled a matching hood up around her face. It was a quality garment, he noted; not the sort of cape a farmer's daughter would wear. "I would be leaving now, Sir," she parried neatly. "Good day."
Her presence had disoriented him--he only now realized she meant to go out into the storm. He closed the door behind her, so's not to spook Queen. "With it blowing like this?"
"Yes," said the schoolmarm. "I like cold weather."
"Now ma'am, I'd not be much of a gentleman if I were to allow you to walk out in this storm." Not much of a gentleman anyway, he put his hand on her arm to stay her--
--and now he felt the cold. Startled by the ice in her gaze, he immediately removed his hand. He expected she would slap him now, or make some other prim, appropriate response.
Instead, she said, "Allow me?"
And for a moment, through all that prim frost, he saw unexpected fire. Its heat rushed over him, as surely as her smile had, from its prison deep behind all her rules and moralities.
But like the smile, the icy fire lasted only a moment, then vanished under confusion or embarrassment. The gal escaped into the rain, and he--well, he watched her. Watched her all the way down the road to that clapboard house he'd passed by, where the rain-obscured slip of blue turned in and he knew she'd be safe. He watched for several minutes past that, too.
Fine example of womanhood, that. He doubted he'd be the least bit cold tonight, with her on his mind. Not that he, Handy Jack Harwood, ought to be entertaining himself with thoughts of a lady. Not the kind of thoughts a man deals himself on a cold night, anyhow. Although he had seen fire in her. Short-lived but certain.
Darned good thing Jack would be moving on, after tonight. If he were to stay in the area for much longer, he might just overestimate his chances and underestimate his odds, again.
Then again...things surely would be interesting, if he did.
Might even be fun.