Wyoming Territory – Late Summer 1885
A whirlwind of swishing skirts smacked into Timothy O’Conner.
His arms shot out to keep the woman from falling as the scent of lavender stole his breath. Glory be. His dreams had come true. Long, blond hair, creamy skin, eyes as blue as prairie flax—Gwendolyn McGill was in his arms.
Her hands anchored onto his shoulders, and she looked up at him as the whistle of the incoming train pierced the air. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t watching where I was going.”
His arms tightened around her, as if they’d decided to keep his dreams true just a bit longer—propriety be hanged. “Gwen.”
She cocked her head.
How had he dared to breathe her name? No lowly ranch hand called the prettiest, wealthiest girl this side of the Mississippi by her first name, let alone a nickname. Especially since—as far as she was concerned—they hardly knew each other. But he knew plenty about her, more than he wanted to know sometimes.
She looked at him oddly. “Again, I’m sorry.”
“No, it was my fault.”
She attempted to pull away.
Why hadn’t he let her go?
Thankfully he hadn’t come into town smelling and looking like the ranch hand he was. And yet his clean, threadbare clothing seemed as if they’d contaminate whatever fancy fabric she was wearing. A deep blue cloth that set off her eyes, which were even more beautiful up close.
“You can let me go now. I’m all right.”
“Are you?” He looked behind her, scanning the crowd scurrying about the station. “You were practically running, and you’re not the type to run.”
She pointed awkwardly toward the train. “I guess I was sort of running—that way.”
“Oh? Well, trains don’t leave that quickly. It takes time to disembark and—”
“I know how trains work.” She let loose a chuckle which made his heart stop. That had been a real laugh. For the past several years, he hadn’t heard anything but the fake laugh she used when flirting with men about town. The last time he’d heard her truly laugh had been the year he’d watched her mother chase after her by the creek behind their huge home. His parents had never played with him like that. He’d been content enough when they’d just—
“I’m on my way to meet Mr. Wright.”
Timothy looked toward the locomotive, a sneer overpowering his lips.
He’d expected the young lawyer to return months ago and put a ring on Gwen’s finger, relieving Tim of this ridiculous pining for a woman who’d never be his. But the longer Mr. Wright had stayed away, and the longer Gwen hadn’t flirted with anyone since, the more his heart had been suspended in half agony, half hope.
Considering a new lawyer had set up in town last month, Mr. Wright couldn’t be coming back for work. Which meant he had to be coming back for Gwen—the woman in Tim’s arms.
Why was he still holding her? Tim let go and took a giant step back. How long had he kept her trapped against him? Seconds? Minutes? An eternity. “Sorry.”
A worried wrinkle creased her flawless brow as she looked toward the passenger cars.
Had Mr. Wright seen them wrapped up together? With the smoke rolling across the platform, hopefully no one had. Tim smashed his hat down, shoving the bangs he always arranged to hide his blemished forehead nearly into his eyes.
“Well, excuse me, Mr. O’Conner, I must—”
“Are you sure?”
Oh, why had he not kept his mouth shut? It was disrespectful to question someone of her social status. And yet, when would he ever again be able to ask her what no one seemed to be asking? “About Mr. Wright.”
“What do you mean?”
He didn’t meet her gaze, too afraid to see the affection she held for the man they spoke of. Was there anything he could say that would make a difference? “I just don’t think…” He huffed and glanced toward the train. “That he’s right for you.”
“Oh?” She straightened, tilting her chin.
Now he’d done it. Got her defensive. But what did she see in the man? Beyond the fact he was good-looking and wealthy.
Tim sighed. That was probably sufficient for most people. But he’d seen the two of them together enough last year to know Mr. Wright was not mesmerized by her. Nor did he seem to care why she pretended to have no interests other than whatever issued forth from his mouth.
Tim didn’t quite know why she acted like that either, but he’d seen the depths that ran under Gwen’s surface, once after her mother died, and once nearly two years ago—though Gwen hadn’t known he’d seen her crying that last time, sitting on a rock by the creek, doubled over as if sadness had given her an ulcer.
Mr. Wright didn’t strike him as the kind of person who would pray for her for weeks without any idea why she was crying. And if the gossip could be trusted, he’d not communicated with her the entire year he’d been gone. “He can’t be the right man for you. Just like the six who came before him weren’t.”
She took a quick step backward. “Pardon?”
“The others who left you high and dry.”
Her eyes clouded with hurt.
But it was true. There’d been Smith, Jefferson, Hendrix, Grayson, Thomas something or other, and Parks. Though Hendrix, the best of the bunch, had never strung her along, none had truly seemed interested in what made her who she was.
“Maybe so, but I don’t know why…” Her face crumbled.
Had she no idea her phony flirtations attracted the wrong type of men? Maybe if he explained. Tim held up his hand and ticked off fingers. “Smith was too old for you. If you’d acted more mature, he might’ve been interested.”
Her brows shot up and fire sparked within her eyes.
Goodness, she was gorgeous riled. But he couldn’t stop now. “Hendrix couldn’t take your clinginess or the fake way you presented yourself—you know that I know you don’t naturally act like that.”
Her eyes clouded a little, and she visibly swallowed. He’d wondered if she’d forgotten about that day, but apparently, she hadn’t. They’d never talked about the time he was eight and had caught her hacking into a tree trunk with a broken blade in a mournful rage after her mother’s death, when she’d hastily wiped away her tears after realizing he’d sneaked into her family’s orchard to steal the rotting apples off the ground. She’d sent him home with a ham hock instead, then gotten into trouble over the missing meat. But she’d never told her father, knowing he’d have accused Tim of stealing.
His hand trembled at the memory, but he put up another finger. After that day, she’d gone on living a life he could never aspire to—though now, he wasn’t sure it was any better than his. “You likely didn’t have enough money to entice the nice-looking railroad boss. And the blond probably realized he couldn’t afford the standard of living you’d require.” Timothy glanced toward the train. “I’d not be surprised if Mr. Wright made seven.”
“Thank you for that depressing prediction, Mr. O’Conner.” She lifted her chin and glared at him, though he noted the moisture in her eyes. “I’m glad to know I’ve no qualities whatsoever to attract a man—”
“That’s not what I meant.” He reached for her, but Gwen’s glare stopped him cold. He sighed and clasped the back of his neck instead. “You’ve got a lot of good qualities. You care about people. And you’re stronger than I am.” He knew what it was like to be judged by a father’s failure. The talk. The wary glances. He had difficulty looking certain people in the eyes.
She’d found a way to hold her head high, despite her father being sent to prison.
The train doors thumped open, stealing her attention.
“Gwen!” A masculine shout turned Tim’s head, and his heart sank. Time had run out.
She waved at the blastedly good-looking Mr. Wright before turning back to Tim. “I’m thankful for your concern, but I have to go now.”
Before he could say more, she plastered on that beautiful, heart-numbingly fake smile and walked straight for Mr. Wright.
Why had he ever held onto hope?
It was such a worthless thing to possess.
Arm in arm with Eric Wright, Gwen willed her heart to settle. He’d been hard to convince to take a walk after he disembarked, but she’d practically begged, and he’d relented.
This was likely her only chance to prove to him she wasn’t the empty-headed woman he’d left behind last year before her brother showed up and monopolized the conversation. And yet, the words she’d planned to say had all fled—the ones she could remember felt either trite or childish.
What if, no matter the words she chose, he didn’t like the real her any better than he’d liked the flirty her—the girl she’d believed he’d fallen for until he’d left and never wrote back?
Thankfully Eric seemed content to take in the scenery as they drew closer to the creek that ran behind the church. The mountain ridges surrounding town were enveloped in a summer pollen haze and the clouds hung like fragile wisps high in the sky. The golden light infusing the air gave her hope that if she just got the words out, the interest he’d lost in regard to her would return, that she’d still have a chance at moving to Denver with him so she could start over.
Her past flirty ways had disguised the fact she wasn’t a simpleton, aiding her in collecting enough information about her father’s criminal activities to pass to the marshal, but her flighty façade had done her no good. After Father had been sent to prison and her brother had returned to clean up the mess, she’d not been able to instantly drop the act and had teased and flattered her brother’s friend as she’d been accustomed to doing with the many men who’d come before him. But once she’d realized she liked Mr. Wright, she’d discovered herself imprisoned by her false front, ensnared by her own deceptions.
No one knew she wasn’t really like that—except maybe Timothy O’Conner.
She shook her head. No, that day in the orchard had not been enough for Timothy to actually know her. And after that incident, they’d never socialized, despite attending school together.
And yet, Timothy had quite accurately described several of the men who’d left her without a second thought. But what of the good qualities he’d rattled off about her while his muddy hazel eyes had drilled into hers as if trying to convince her she was what he claimed? Well, she wanted to believe all those things about herself. But lately, the way the people in town treated her made her believe she was just fooling herself to think a man like Mr. Wright should’ve seen something worthy enough about her to have at least written once.
Up ahead, a cluster of birch trees shot up through a pink and green cloud of Woods’ Rose behind the quaint little bench she’d commissioned in memory of her mother. With the trickling of the nearby creek and the backdrop of the purple-blue ridge bordering town, it would be an excellent place to declare herself.
She rubbed her hands against his sleeve to dry her sweaty palms. It was time to break this awkward silence with something. “Are your legs feeling better? It’s been a long time since I’ve had to travel so far. How’s Denver?”
Denver. She’d visited several times and considered it the perfect place to begin again. All the things she could learn to do there, the people she could meet, the ability to walk down the street and not be judged by her last name.
“I couldn’t have picked a better town or job for myself.” He led her toward the wooden bench nestled between the two flower beds.
Gwen sat and let out a shaky breath. “I’m glad you came back.”
He raised a brow but sat beside her without asking the almost palpable ‘why’ that hung heavy in the summer heat.
“Of course, Bo has been looking forward to your visit since we got your telegram, too. For a while there, he’d begun to believe you were never going to speak to us again.”
Eric shifted on the bench but took her hand and patted it—like one might do to calm a doddering old woman. “Bo and I will always be friends.”
She waited for him to mention her, but he seemed content to say no more.
The moths that everyone assumed occupied the space between her ears started to swirl behind her ribcage. “I hope we’re still friends?”
He blinked hard but gave a short nod. “Of course.”
“Then why didn’t you write me?” She braced herself for his answer. If only he might say something that would prove he’d felt the same as she had before he left.
He looked toward the mountains. “I’m not much for writing.”
Her heart lifted a little. Maybe she hadn’t been the reason for his silence. “My brother isn’t either. I got very few letters from him when he was at school.”
Eric smiled slightly, but then looked back toward the mountains, a deep wrinkle creasing his brow.
A sudden urge to brush the lint off his shoulder and let her hand remain on his arm, give him a practiced smile, and tell him to stop being so very serious tugged at her. Though flirting might make things more comfortable right now, she would not allow herself to do so until he knew exactly what lay beneath her polished art of dalliance. “I’m sorry I didn’t receive any letters from you when you were gone.” She pulled in a deep breath and allowed the words to flow out, polished or not. “I know I might’ve acted in a way that may have made you believe my regard for you was shallow. I suppose it was in the beginning. But before you left, I’d begun to hope.”
His whole face scrunched with apprehension.
The moths turned into big fat frogs that kicked their way down into her stomach. “I know I should’ve been more forthright about my feelings before you left, but I’ve…been forced to grow up since then.” Maybe it’d be better if he believed she’d become a better woman this past year than try to explain why she’d continued to act like a cotton-head even after her father had been locked up. She’d chastised herself enough for her stupidity in continuing the ruse, for wasting the chance she’d had with him. “I know it’s been a long time since we were together, but I’d begun to develop feelings for you.”
“Feelings for me?” He shook his head. “You didn’t seem to have feelings for me. Not real ones, anyway.”
His tone indicated he doubted she could develop feelings for anyone. How could she prove he was mistaken before he walked away from her forever?
Before her mind was aware of her body’s plan—her lips were upon his.
When he didn’t react, she squelched the urge to pull back and run away. She pressed harder, curling a hand into his hair. The feelings he’d had for her would surely resurrect if—
And then his fingers slid down her jaw and his lips turned soft and all manners of heady sensations she’d never experienced made the whole world grow hazy. When he broke the kiss, she pressed a hand against her scuffed lips.
But the smile which had started to warm her face melted clean off.
His expression bore no resemblance to that of a man who’d had his hopes rekindled. He stood and stabbed a hand through his perfectly combed hair. “I can’t do this.”
“I’m sorry.” Oh, what must he think of her? How had she thought kissing him would make him believe she’d changed one whit? “I know that came out of nowhere, but the feelings I had for you last year were real. I was hoping to marry you, and then when you didn’t even write…”
He turned and paced a few steps then came back. But as soon as he opened his mouth, he turned and marched off again.
If only the ground could swallow her up. But instead, she pushed off the bench and went after him. “Eric. Could we not see how things might go—”
He shook his head and turned. “I can’t right now.”
“I understand. It’s too soon after so much time away, and you only intended to be here a week.” She put a hand on his arm though all she wanted to do was run away and curl up in humiliation, but that would get her nowhere. “But will you at least let me show you how much I’ve grown since you left—though a week surely isn’t enough time to do so. What if I moved to Denver? I’m certain Bo would allow me if—”
“No.” Eric put up a hand, rubbing his forehead as if he’d suddenly recalled something, and took a step back. “You can’t.”
She wrapped her arms around herself. How could he say no so adamantly after kissing her like that just minutes ago? But then, what did she really know of his feelings, his plans, his wants? He’d seemed to enjoy her flirting last year, but what if that’s all he’d enjoyed?
His agitated movements were not those of a man who’d just been offered the chance to win back what he’d thought had been lost to him forever.
“I’m sorry. I’d thought…” She turned her head and blinked away the warmth rising behind her eyelids. Seemed she hadn’t chastised herself enough over the way she’d handled things last year. Now she would lie awake for another handful of months, berating herself for this even bigger blunder. “Never mind. Pretend I didn’t say anything.”
His patronizing tone made her recoil. What had she been thinking to believe he’d ever felt something for her? He’d likely only put up with her flirting because she was his good friend’s little sister. “You don’t have to stay and assure me I’m a nice girl. That I’ll find somebody someday somewhere or anything of the sort. You’re free to go, Eric.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
She glanced up and saw the confusion marring his face. He really hadn’t thought about her at all if he could be so blindsided by her hopes of renewing what she’d thought they’d once had. “It’s all right. I want you to go.” If he didn’t leave soon, he might see her cry, and that would make it even harder for him to leave.
Thankfully he nodded, and without another word, turned back toward town.
She plopped down on the bench and winced at a pinch pulling at her scalp. She reached up and extracted a few loose hairpins, allowing the right side of her curls to cascade over her shoulder.
How was she going to spend seven days—let alone one—listening to Eric joke and laugh with her brother now? Or had she ruined Bo’s visit, too? Staring at the plants in the flowerbeds she’d commissioned earlier this summer, she tried not to think about all the ways she’d messed things up and allowed the minutes to tick by until she could trust herself to breathe normally without releasing tears.
Gwen held in a groan. The town’s biggest busybody would not make today any better. What was Mrs. Tate doing all the way out here anyway? As nonchalantly as possible, Gwen pushed her loose hair back behind her shoulder. Surely Mrs. Tate wouldn’t be able to see how her lips still pulsed after her ill-fated kiss, though it was highly unlikely her eyes weren’t bloodshot. Maybe she could blame that on hay fever if the woman noticed.
“Are you all right, Miss McGill?”
Keeping her face turned away, Gwen patted enthusiastically at the dirt at the base of a crooked flower. “Of course. Just out enjoying the sunshine.”
The overweight woman stopped three feet away. “I don’t believe you.” She took a step and plucked a pin from the left side of Gwen’s coiffure. “What happened?”
Failing to bluff well enough might entice Mrs. Tate to make up a story to spread about town. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Tate. I shouldn’t have tried to deceive you. You’re right. I’m having a terrible day and wished to be alone.”
“Bet you’ve had plenty such days since your pa landed himself in jail. Don’t understand why your brother didn’t drag you away from here the moment he moved back. Is he not paying attention to you? He shouldn’t sit around and let things get worse.” The woman tsked and planted her hands on her meaty hips. “Nor should you. I saw what happened and you better do something about it before you land yourself in real trouble.”
Why were people she barely knew telling her what to do today? First Timothy O’Conner, and now Mrs. Tate. But the woman was right, staying in Armelle was not best. Why did Bo seem unable to see that? “And pray, how should I do that?”
Mrs. Tate held out her hands to help Gwen up. “First, we get you cleaned up and looking like the lady you’re supposed to be.”
If Timothy could see something good in her, and Mrs. Tate was willing to help her when she was upset, maybe the townsfolks’ opinion of her wasn’t as bad as she’d thought.