Wyoming, early 1890's
Stuart MacCallum expected the worst when he met Mariah Garrison beneath the Kissing Bridge.
"Well, I am here," he announced on a puff of frozen breath, his fisted hands stuffed deep into his patched coat pockets. "I got your note, and I am here."
He did not know how to talk to ladies, but he would not start worrying the matter with such as her.
When Mariah's eyes widened at his arrival, though, he could not help but notice, up close and alone like this, how very pretty she'd become. He guessed she must be about fourteen now --the same age as his sister Emily, three years younger than him--but she did not look anywhere near as gangly as Emily did. Her hair, swept into neat curls down her back, glinted pure gold even in the dingy shadows of the bridge. Her dark blue coat boasted a fur collar that framed her fine, oval face. The fur was no mere squirrel or rabbit either, like Stuart's sisters or mother might wear. He thought perhaps it was mink.
Against his better judgement, he found himself wondering which would be softer to the touch: the collar, the hair, or the pretty face. Even now, she did not look like a girl who would lure boys to the Kissing Bridge--or into an ambush. But the note, read and reread since he had found it in his school desk after lunch, crackled its reminder in his pocketed fist.
He scowled down at the snow-dusted mud beneath his boots rather than gawk at her. He would go to hell before he would deign touch the likes of her.
"Why..." Her voice fell away, strangely hesitant considering where they were. Traitorously, Stuart's gaze crept back up from the snow, over her expensive coat to her fine, fine face. He saw that her eyes were light gray, like the pre-dawn sky. "Why are you so angry?" she asked him.
Because even if this is not an ambush, my folks raised me better than to trifle with game-playing girls like...like ...
But until today, as far as he had ever noticed, she had not seemed that kind of a girl. She had seemed like a proper young lady, even from across the schoolroom--across the infinite prejudices between her family and his.
He guessed it did anger him at that, to think otherwise.
"You left me a note and I am here," he repeated again, stubborn.
"I can see that," she said, her voice so soft and unsure it was almost a whisper. "Thank you."
Stuart did not bid her welcome. As surely as the bridge sheltered the two of them, it blocked the rest of the world from their sight, too. Even now, any number of her cowboy friends could be creeping up, listening for him to say something they could hold against him, waiting for their chance to teach the oldest MacCallum boy why sheep farmers oughtn't take liberties with a cattle rancher's daughter. Well he was here. He would not let them call him a coward. But they would have to invent any further accusations.
Not that their like would hesitate to do so. Just this year, the cattlemen responsible for the nearby Johnson County range war--massacre, more like it--had gone free without trial because not twelve impartial jurors could be found.
Not twelve men who would dare side against Wyoming's cattle interests....
Stuart would dare, were he old enough--but for a worthy reason. Not merely to be with a girl, especially not one forward enough to leave notes in boys' desks....
He stood there in the muddy snow, his breath misting, and watched Miss Mariah Garrison stand on the bare ground, in the shelter further under the bridge. He had never dared to look at her this closely before. Forgetting his upbringing with a girl this pretty, this delicate, this fancy...it would almost be worth a beating.
If only she were not the one who had lured him here.
She lowered those large, fine eyes of hers, as if unused to such attentions, and the pink in her cheeks looked to be from more than the cold.
"There is work I could be doing," Stuart prompted. "If you have nothing to say to me, I had best get home."
"I'm sorry. I've never...." A fur-mittened hand drifted up to her pink cheek, uncertain, and brushed a golden curl back. soft, he thought again. "We--my sisters and I. We found.... I mean ....."
She shook her head, made an intriguingly human noise of frustration deep in her throat, then simply turned to retrieve something off the ground behind her. A picnic basket? He had not seen it past her skirts, at first. Now that he did, Stuart did not understand it, any more than he understood Mariah Garrison--the Mariah Garrison--leaving notes in his desk. She did not mean to offer charity, did she? She could not have planned a picnic. This was November!
Setting the basket between them, the girl knelt and opened the wicker cover. A white, wooly head popped out, bright-eyed and incautious, to sniff the air.
An autumn lamb!
Stunned, Stuart dropped to one knee in the dusting of snow and lifted the lamb with experienced hands, turned it, examined it. Three weeks old, at most. Something had mauled it, but the wounds had been tended. The beastie did not even seem to notice, wriggled only once, then tried to suckle hungrily at his thumb.
"He's been very good," assured the girl who had made this fantastic delivery, as if he might fault the lamb's behavior. Then she did something even more amazing. She reached a hand across the space between them and stroked the lamb's head, near his own bare hand. She did not seem to think she would soil her fineries by touching such an animal. When the lamb nuzzled the fur of her mitten, searching for food, she laughed as if it tickled.
Stuart looked up from the soft, delicate creature in his hands to the soft, delicate creature just across the picnic basket from him, and something deep in his gut shifted, as subtly as a heartbeat, as dramatically as an earthquake.
By all that was holy. If this was neither ambush nor tryst, Miss Mariah Garrison had suddenly risen to his highest esteem.
* * *
"He hasn't made a sound, hardly," assured Mariah, her nervousness such that she had to fill this awkward silence with something, anything, even babbling. "We found him yesterday, when we were out riding, and he had blood on him. My sister Laurel said perhaps he was stolen from his mother by some animal that we frightened away."
More's the pity, Laurel had also said, but Mariah would not repeat that. Neither would she admit that little Audra had not even known what the dear creature was, at first. And oh, the lamb was dear. Watching it decline her glove and go back to suckling at Stuart MacCallum's callused thumb, she wondered yet again how such an innocent animal could do such dreadful damage to the open range originally settled by the cattle ranchers. How could this inspire such anger in good men like her father and his colleagues?
"Likely a bobcat," agreed Stuart, and for the first time since he had descended the creekbank to join her under the bridge, he didn't sound angry. He squinted up at her through a fall of hair the color of dark wheat, and she thought him surprisingly handsome, now that his mouth no longer pulled into that dreadful scowl. "Maybe a coyote. A wolf or cougar would have killed him faster."
She rather liked his eyes--a rich brown, like tilled soil in a garden. She hadn't noticed before now how very tall he had grown, either; even kneeling, he seemed tall and solid. The Garrisons and the MacCallums might attend the same school, the same church, but they did not move in the same circles. She'd never before had cause to note Stuart's height.
Now she could not stop noticing. He seemed so... solid.
"We couldn't leave him to freeze to death," she hurried to add, to fill the silence, and wished her voice would not sound so frivolous and silly, wished her stomach were not so unsteady. "We brought him home, hid him. And we fed him with a rag dipped in milk. Cow's milk. I hope that's all right."
Stuart's eyes darkened with a seriousness she sensed more than understood. "Why bother?" he asked. "For a sheep?"
Which was what Laurel had said--but Mariah suspected that to be mere posturing on her sister's part. Laurel had known full well the other girls would out-vote her.
"He is yours, isn't he?" she asked, rather than deign answer his question. It was hard to speak self-righteously about caring for all God's creatures, what with the sick suspicion that her beloved father might well have let the lamb die--or helped it out of its misery. Papa would never approve of this exchange, should he ever find out. That must be why her heart was pounding so dramatically, why her throat felt so tight. She felt guilty to be doing something Papa would so clearly forbid.
"There are few sheep ranches around here," Stuart reminded her, which made her feel guilty in a whole different way, made her look down. "Yes, he is likely one of ours."
"Then you take him." All that mingling guilt roiled around in her chest in a most disturbing way, and she lashed out against it and against the closest source of it. Standing, still not looking at him, she said, "Try to do a better job at keeping the bobcats and the coyotes away."
Then she turned away and waited for him to leave. So much for doing a good deed.
"You ...." After an awkward pause, Stuart MacCallum also stood, and tried again. "Do not forget your basket."
"You may take it," said Mariah.
"No need," insisted Stuart, somewhat more sharply, and curiosity drew her to glance over her shoulder back at him. He had tucked the lamb under his rough but clean coat, so that the baby would stay warm against his chest. His chest, too, was broader than she had remembered. Like so many of the older boys, Stuart only attended school in the winter, and then only when weather permitted.
Mariah retrieved the now-lightweight basket, held it with both hands. She hoped her father would not see her sneaking it back into their town house.
"Mariah," said Stuart suddenly, which surprised her--the attention, more than the name. Apparently it surprised him, too. His eyes flared at his own boldness, and he looked quickly down at the shadowed ground between them. "That is...Miss Garrison."
"You may call me Mariah," she assured him. "Your sisters and I are...acquaintances." Now she felt guilty about that, too--why were they no more than simple acquaintances? Was she such a snob?
Stuart scowled again, still at the ground. "Thank you for doing this," he said, awkward. "I have been less than...than gracious. My apologies, but I feared...."
She cocked her head. Stuart MacCallum, who several years ago had faced down three full-grown cowboys in the street, and them armed, and him not? Stuart MacCallum fear anything? She would as soon as believe her father could be frightened.
"I suspected less-than-proper intentions," he blurted. She was not sure, but he might even be blushing.
"Goodness--what intentions could possibly be less proper than giving a sheep back to a sheep farmer?" she asked him, even more intrigued. She had known as soon as she and her sisters secreted the lamb home, then up to hers and Laurel's bedroom where her father was least likely to intrude, that she had left appropriate behavior far behind.
He widened his eyes at her, but since he hadn't looked fully up, his hair was falling across his face again, which made him appear far more endearing than reproachful.
Endearing? Oh, yes, very. Proud and stubborn. Tall and strong and solid. And remarkably, amazingly endearing.
Since he wasn't saying anything, she dipped her own head, eyed him at a slant, and risked the slightest teasing smile. "You might as well tell me, Stuart MacCallum, because now I am determined to find out."
"This--" He swallowed hard. Now he was blushing! She had not realized that men blushed. "This bridge."
"It's the bridge closest to our house," she noted, impatient to understand.
He quickly looked away, then back, jaw set. His eyes were just as wide, but now they were reproachful. "You ought not be let out of the house," he told her, testy.
And then, to her everlasting surprise, the quiet Stuart MacCallum lost his temper with her. "This is the Kissing Bridge, Mariah!" he exclaimed. "It is where the boys bring their best girls to kiss! If I caught a fellow meeting with my sister here, I would thrash him within an inch of his life and never let her out again! You should not come here, certainly not invite boys to meet you here. People will think...."
Then, stumbling to silence, he just stood there like a rock and smoldered helplessly down at her.
"They...will think...." he tried again.
She stared back up at him, flushed with embarrassment to realize what he had thought of her, guilt-ridden to have betrayed her family even more thoroughly than she had meant to. And along with the horror, she felt voiceless with fury that he would dare chide her about it as if he had any right to do so, as if she did not realize the magnitude of her mistake as soon as he had explained it to her. The Kissing Bridge? Her town had a Kissing Bridge?
And amidst all that, she felt confused--so very confused by how beautiful his brown eyes struck her, crackling with a passion she had never suspected in anyone from Sheridan, Wyoming...much less a MacCallum.
She swallowed hard herself, anchoring herself on the nearness of his gaze so that she could stay focused through all that confusing, overwhelming distress. He had eyes one could find a great deal of steadiness in, despite their passionate intensity.
Suddenly, like a balm, she realized she was glad he would dare chide her. It seemed to mean something important, something she didn't wholly understand yet, but was not about to ignore. As if perhaps, just perhaps, he cared about her.
Not a MacCallum for a Garrison. Something far more personal than that. Stuart. For Mariah.
"What," she whispered back up to him, a dare, "would people think?"
Even though they both knew.
Then, to her delight, Stuart MacCallum leaned across those extra few inches and kissed her. On the lips! It was a quick kiss, not so long as the ones she sometimes caught her parents sharing when they thought they were alone, but it felt nice. Very nice. Something about him doing that--leaning close and kissing her like that--warmed her like sunshine, like firelight, like summertime. He bumped her with the lump in his coat that was the lamb, and knocked the basket she held against her knees, but the feel of his lips sang through her nevertheless.
Then he took a quick step back, his brown eyes stubborn, his lips pressed tightly together.
After a moment's consideration, Mariah smiled at him.
He swallowed, looked down, then scowled back up. "I ought not have done that."
"Neither should I," she agreed. It was hard to feel guilty, though, with her whole body warm and summery. She should not be here in the first place. What she did here hardly seemed more significant, propriety-wise. "But...I'm glad we did. Aren't you?"
"My folks raised me better than that," he pointed out, which seemed a very rude thing for someone who had just kissed her to say.
"My parents have done a perfectly good job raising me, too!" she had to point out.
"Well then if I am going to be kissing you, it should not be under a bridge! I should be courting you, outright."
Courting? Not that he'd said he would like to court her...but perhaps he had enjoyed the kiss after all, to even consider such a thing. Such a marvelous, impossible thing.
Their annoyance at each other faded to dismay. Mariah put their dilemma into words. "Papa would never allow that."
"Not a sheep farmer," agreed Stuart.
"Not a sheep farmer," echoed Mariah, then caught a fleeting hope. "I don't suppose you've considered other--"
But his stubborn expression silenced her, and she felt guilty again.
Stuart seemed angry, but she no longer thought he was angry at her. "Thank you for the lamb, Mariah. And...I apologize for compromising you."
"You didn't compromise me, Stuart. You...I liked it. Can't...can't we see each other? Again?"
He made a groaning noise and turned away, stepped out from under the bridge. "Do not forget who you are," he reminded her bitterly over his coated. "Do not forget who I am, either."
Halfway up the bank, he paused long enough to reach down a gentlemanly hand--the one not holding the lamb to his chest--and guided her all the way up. She liked how strong his hand felt, closing protectively around her mitten. But as soon as she reached level land, he released it and climbed to the top himself, nodded at her, and again turned away.
He paused when she said, "I won't forget who you are."
But then he walked on.
Mariah raised a fur-mittened hand to her lips, closed her eyes, thought about being kissed. Kissed by Stuart MacCallum.
Maybe she was the oldest daughter of one of the most respected cattle ranchers in northern Wyoming. And maybe he was the oldest son of one of the greatest pariahs of the grasslands, her father's dire enemy: a sheep farmer. But he had kissed her, and it had not seemed sinful at all.
So that, thought Mariah in wonder, is who I am going to marry.
And then she thought: Poor Papa!