Steamboat Bend, Montana
She hated children.
Nora-Leigh Dillon winced when the horrible notion crossed her mind as she stood in the sunny schoolyard watching the children play their silly games. She rolled her eyes heavenward and prayed God would forgive her for the terrible, selfish thought. Because it wasn’t true. Well, not entirely true. She simply hated teaching, and children were an unfortunate aspect of the teaching profession. It seemed as if each day she spent in the classroom, life passed her by, and her own dreams drifted away like the feathery wisps off a cottonwood tree.
Day in, day out, year in, year out, her life grew more tedious. Teaching the children, advising them, guiding them. She began teaching when she was just a girl herself and after six years, she was weary of the monotony and longed for a life of her own.
From beneath the brim of her straw hat, she looked out over the sun-dappled schoolyard at her brood, an even dozen boys and girls, playing, laughing, and chasing each other. She wondered if something was missing inside of her. Some maternal, loving female part such as her mother, Elsa, possessed. Her mother adored teaching, and she adored children. She reminded her daughter often about her love of children. Nora-Leigh wondered if that was her mother’s subtle way of telling her she had no grandchildren of her own to love and adore. As if that was in the realm of possibility. She scoffed at the foolish idea.
When Elsa’s eyesight began to fail, Nora-Leigh reluctantly took over the teaching duties in Steamboat Bend. Of course, the fact that no one else in town offered to become the school’s teacher had a little something to do with her decision. Few people in the small farming and ranching community could read and write. For that matter, few had the time or inclination to take up the position.
She sighed and folded her arms over her chest. She leaned her head back against the unpainted wall of the clapboard school while still keeping an eye on the children. She felt no maternal joy when wiping a dripping nose, or while reminding fourteen-year-old Jake Forrest that spitting wasn’t done in the presence of ladies. She didn’t feel much like a mother or a teacher when she scraped manure off a pair of small booted feet before the child brought the stench into the schoolroom for everyone to share.
Some days she felt so stifled she could scream. But then, once in a while when a child grasped a difficult equation or discovered a love of reading, it all seemed worthwhile. Most of the time, though, she felt bored and incomplete. And she worried that she was somehow poisoning their fertile young minds with her wish to be anywhere else but in that suffocating classroom.
How she envied Mary Lou Anderson when she married at sixteen, the same age Nora-Leigh began teaching, and moved to Denver, or when Jack Mitchell graduated from her classroom and traveled to San Francisco to become a journalist at a well-known newspaper.
Nora-Leigh glanced up from beneath the brim of her bonnet to see a whirlwind of a little girl running toward her. Her yellow gingham-checked skirt flew about her ankles showing off the blue satin trim and white lace ruffle of her pantalets. Despite the mud in the schoolyard, her boots shined as if recently polished. Nora-Leigh took a deep, fortifying breath.
“Miss Dillon! Sherman is looking cross-eyed at me,” seven-year-old Amanda Hartson whined in a louder-than-usual voice. She dashed right up to Nora-Leigh, stopped and tugged on the front of her skirt. Expectation danced all over her frowning freckled face. Amanda was the daughter of the richest man in town-—a man who made his fortune in gold mining and who along with his arrogant wife spoiled little Amanda near to death with a wardrobe full of frilly dresses, and a cart and pony of her very own. She wished Amanda had a governess of her very own.
If Amanda didn’t complain to her at least once an hour, it meant the little girl was absent from class. She counted to ten before replying to the obnoxious child. “Just ignore Sherman, Amanda. He will stop if you don’t give him any undue attention. Perhaps you should feel fortunate that he isn’t biting your arm this time. Don’t you still have teeth marks from yesterday?”
Her tiny mouth gaped in a surprised oh, and her eyes widened. She nodded without further comment as if she’d given it serious thought. Then Amanda ran off, seemingly satisfied with Nora-Leigh’s advice.
Did all schoolteachers have the irresistible urge to throw a McGuffey’s Reader out the window, break all the children’s slates into pieces, lock the door and run off without a backward glance? Oh, how wicked and selfish she sounded.
Thank God, school would be out for the year in four days.
Four days. Four long days.
Nora-Leigh was already daydreaming about how she would spend her summer. Searching for treasure, panning for gold, discovering unknown possibilities. It was her one true ambition. Find a long lost treasure, make a fortune and travel the world to see all the wondrous sights she’d read about.
Nora-Leigh glanced at the timepiece pinned to the front of her bodice. Outdoor recess time was over. She hated to go indoors, not only because she had to resume teaching, but also because this was the first sunny day all week. She trudged across the schoolyard and rang the bell to get the children inside. She heaved a heartfelt sigh. Four days… How many hours was that? she wondered, as she stepped into the small single room. She now had a mathematical problem for the older children to solve this afternoon. Of course, they had to work on geography first-–Nora-Leigh’s favorite subject.
After school Nora-Leigh, as exhilarated about her freedom as any one of her charges, rushed home and changed into trousers and one of her grandfather’s chambray shirts. She stuffed her hair up beneath a dingy old straw gardening hat and grabbed a shovel. She ran off feeling much like a guilty child avoiding chores.
She had been digging only fifteen minutes when an abrupt rustling in the trees behind her startled her so badly that she lost her balance and stumbled forward. With a screech that echoed around her in the trees and bounced back off the low hills, she fell into the shallow hole she’d been so diligently digging. She tumbled head over heels and landed on her hands and knees. Her shovel followed her in and landed with a plop, tossing up a clod of mud that splattered her face and neck. Mud squished between her fingers and splattered the thighs of her trousers. Unfortunately it had been raining for two straight days and only just today had the sun come out.
“Damnation!” She felt she could get away with the unladylike vulgarity since she was alone. Besides she rather liked the sound of it on her lips. “Damnation!”
Feeling as foolish as a dumb milk cow, she scrambled out of the hole. When she heard the same rustling again, she ducked beneath the drooping branches of a spreading fir tree. She squatted on her dirty knees and prayed that the dead needles would soften any sound she inadvertently made. What would her students think if they found their teacher covered in mud and digging a hole in the middle of nowhere?
The sun scarcely reached through the thick branches and blanketed the area beneath the tree in a gloomy gray. The death-like quiet gave Nora-Leigh a sense of isolation. Her heart thudded in her throat as she strained to hear the sound again. She brushed her sweaty, blister-covered palms against the twill fabric of her trouser legs and waited. The pungent evergreen scent of the towering fir tree tickled her nose.
For what seemed like long agonizing minutes she sat there anticipating the worst–Indians in war paint, although they hadn’t had anything to go on the warpath about in a good many years; most had been marched away to reservations. Or rabid wolves, a pack of them with sharp fangs dripping blood, ready to tear out her throat. When was the last time a pack of wolves attacked a human?
Or more likely, as rational thought coursed through her befuddled brain, it was Billy Seth Torrence who’d had a crush on her since they’d been thirteen-years-old and in the schoolroom together. Although now physically an adult Billy Seth wasn’t quite normal in the head. He’d followed her around Steamboat Bend for ten years like her own shadow making calf eyes and bestowing slobbery kisses on her whenever he caught her unawares. The boy, she guessed she should call him a man even though she still thought of him as a boy, didn’t know the meaning of the word “no” or chose to go deaf whenever she blurted it in his elephant-sized ear. Everyone, including her own granny who never said a bad word about anyone, said he had the biggest ears in Steamboat Bend. The men who sat in the town-square and did nothing but gossip and gripe, said other parts of his anatomy were oversized as well. She could only imagine. She tried not to think about Billy Seth’s oversized parts, however, because her face turned red, which gave away her wayward thoughts and made those gossipy old men hoot with laughter about that eccentric spinster woman, Nora-Leigh Dillon.
She chanced a quick peek through the emerald-green branches, then breathed a deep sigh of relief. It turned out to be nothing at all like she’d imagined. She hadn’t known how she would begin to explain the digging to her students or their parents, or even her own family. It was just a man, but a stranger to Steamboat Bend and one could never be too careful.
He was tall and wide-shouldered. He sauntered along the path in a confident manner, pulling a plodding dapple-gray horse behind him. He wasn’t even trying to be quiet. He started to whistle a merry song dreadfully out of tune, and as loud as you please.
“Hey there, woman,” he called out, momentarily stopping his whistling. “You might as well crawl out of there.” His uncompromising voice rippled with challenge. “I can smell you beneath that tree.”
Smell her? How could he smell her? She knew she didn’t smell bad. She had bathed just last night with her favorite French-milled lavender soap she bought from the general store. Why Franklin Homer himself told her it came over on a boat all the way from Paris, France. Franklin pronounced it Paree. She’d even shampooed her hair with it. Twice.
Nora-Leigh stood still, and didn’t so much as blink. Maybe he was bluffing.
He wasn’t. When a strong arm reached through the branches, snaked around her waist and hauled her unceremoniously onto her feet, she yelped. No. She hollered like a branded yearling calf. He immediately let loose, and she immediately fell onto her posterior. Not that it mattered since her trousers were already muddy. Still falling on one’s backside in front of a man was humiliating. And a fine-looking man at that. Not that she really noticed or was interested in that sort of thing. Not at her advanced age.
She looked up at the sound of his deep laughter, ungracious for a family member, but downright rude coming from a complete stranger. He stared right back. Nora-Leigh was taken back a bit when she saw that he wore a black patch over his right eye, and that a glimmer of humor sparkled from his left. He had a thick sable-brown mustache that covered his lips but did nothing to disguise the grin that covered his face.
“That wasn’t nice,” she complained even though she knew she sounded just like Amanda Hartson on one of her most irritatingly petulant days. She stood and swiped ineffectually at her bottom.
Watching her brush at the seat of her pants, he chuckled as if he couldn’t help himself. “Good God, but you’re a muddy mess. I’d give you a hand but you’d probably slap me. Should I apologize for laughing?”
She frowned. “No, I don’t think that’s necessary, but I don’t smell, sir. And how did you know I was a woman anyway?”
“I didn’t say you smelled bad. As for knowing you were a woman, well, I never smelled a man that smelled so sweet.” His voice, no longer challenging but smooth as warmed molasses, could, as Granny would say, coax the birds from the trees. “Nor known a woman that was quite so dirty. Pardon my familiarity but you’ve got a glob of mud here.” He reached over and brushed at the tip of her nose. “You do smell purty, though, just like some purple flowers I once saw on an island in the South China Sea.”
She rolled her eyes. “What a simpleton you must think me.”
His dark brows rose. “Why?”
“You’ve never been to an island in the South China Sea or anywhere else so exotic, for that matter.”
His lips turned up in an amused grin displaying dimples in both cheeks. “And how would you know that?”
“Look at you.” Her glance swept up and down his rangy frame, taking in the worn black boots, the well-washed chambray shirt and the denim trousers that clung to his hips and thighs like a second skin. He even wore a red neckerchief tied in a careless knot around his throat. “Although you’re clean, you’re either a cowboy or a miner or my name isn’t…well, that’s neither here nor there. I’m not trying to be rude, sir, but I consider myself a good judge of people. And unless I’m badly mistaken, you’ve never set foot anywhere east of the Mississippi, and certainly not in some port of call in the South China Sea.”
One hand rested on his hip as he peered into her face with that unfathomable pewter-colored eye. “Is that so?”
“Yes, well…” He made her feel oddly uncomfortable with that knowing grin and that single twinkling eye. “I should be on my way.”
He bent to retrieve her shovel. Handing it to her, he said, “Don’t forget this, darlin’.”
“I’m not your darling, Mister…”
“Sullivan,” he supplied. “Clay Sullivan. But you’re someone’s darling, aren’t you now?”
“No, absolutely not.” Flustered and completely at a loss for something else to say, Nora-Leigh backed up and, yes indeed, fell right back into the hole.
The stranger dropped to his knees and peeked at her, that all-knowing smile dimpling his cheeks once again. “Are you all right, miss?”
When she nodded, he held out his hand and effortlessly hauled her to her feet. “So this is how you got so muddy. What are you trying to do? Dig all the way to China?”
Nora-Leigh began walking back toward town, away from this insulting man. “No, sir, I’m not.”
He stepped in line with her and walked beside her. “Well it won’t work.”
“What won’t work?”
“Digging your way to China. When I was eight years old I tried. All I got for my hard work was blisters on my hands and a reprimand from my Pa.”
Nora-Leigh stopped and glanced at his face. “I’m hardly eight years old anymore.”
He stopped also. “No, ma’am.” He glanced at her mud-stained shirt and trousers in one all-encompassing gaze. “You most certainly are not.”
She didn’t understand why he made her so uncomfortable. No man had ever looked at her in quite the same manner. She started forward again, and he did the same. “I’m Steamboat Bend’s school teacher.”
“A science experiment, then?”
“What?” she asked, confused and anxious to be away from this unfathomable man. It was almost as if he knew her innermost thoughts. She found it most disconcerting.
“What are you digging for?”
“That is my business.”
He hooted with laughter. “You’re a prickly one, Miss Schoolmarm.”
God, how she hated that word. It sounded almost as bad as spinster. In her mind, it was as interchangeable as her own name. Schoolmarm, spinster, Nora-Leigh Dillon. Steamboat Bend’s only single woman and stuck there until they put her in her grave. Out here the men outnumbered the women at least five to one but no one wanted her. Except, of course, Billy Seth Torrence.
They were on the edge of town, near the first crossroads of homes and businesses. Without a good-bye, she abruptly turned the corner to the right and left him standing there calling after her. She ran most of the way home.
“Nellie, I believe I’ve found the one. Come take a look.”
Nora-Leigh set down the book she’d been trying to read and stood. She might as well give up-—she’d read the same page at least five times. It appeared Granny wasn’t about to let her get any reading done. She crossed the room to stand beside her diminutive grandmother…again. Just to placate her, Nora-Leigh glanced out the window at the dusty street.
Nothing new ever passed their home on the main thoroughfare; she saw the same neighbors pulling wagons loaded with bags of seed and planting equipment, familiar men on foot and on horseback, and boisterous miners in the streets and staggering out of the saloons. Steamboat Bend, Montana was as dull as boiled cabbage, and about as pleasing to the nose. Nora-Leigh heaved a sigh.
Granny swatted her arm as she held the faded blue flower-sprigged curtain aside. She pointed her pudgy index finger so Nora-Leigh couldn’t help but see the man Granny was pointing out.
Granny leaned close, and pushed her nose up against the glass of the parlor window. The glass immediately fogged over.
Nora-Leigh shook her head. Praise the heavens, Granny still had most of her sensibilities but her sight was puny at best, even with the help of the spectacles that clung to her button nose.
She waggled her finger at a man sitting astride a huge, dapple gray horse in front of the livery. The horse and rider looked appallingly familiar. His back was to her so all Nora-Leigh could see was the man nodding his head as he leaned on the pommel and talked with the livery owner, Slim Jim Walken. Surprised that Granny even recognized the gender of the stranger, Nora-Leigh took a closer look. He sat confidently in the saddle, lean and weathered, his hat clutched in one large hand. The parched wind tousled his over-long chocolate-brown hair.
Nora-Leigh leaned forward as the man turned his head. There was a rather obvious difference between this man and the others. A black leather patch covered his right eye. She again noticed the thick mustache that he brushed absent-mindedly with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand. Aside from the eye patch, though, he looked little different than any of the half dozen other men Granny thought looked like promising husband material and had been pointing out to her for the past hour. Unfortunately, Nora-Leigh knew this man. They’d met under rather embarrassing circumstances just yesterday. That could only be Clay Sullivan of the mischievous grin, dimpled cheeks and rude manner.
“Well proportioned if I do say so myself. A good, honest face, too.”
“Oh? And how can you tell that, Granny?”
“Because his eyes are set wide apart. That’s a good sign, means he’s trustworthy. You need a man who’s trustworthy. Course, my own eyes aren’t what they used to be. What do you see?”
Nora-Leigh paused a moment and pretended to take a closer look. She brought her gaze around to Granny’s beloved face. “He has a nice hat.”
A disapproving frown flitted across her grandmother’s lined features as she dropped the curtain back into place. “Humph.”
“And if I’m not mistaken that’s a bird cage strapped to the back of his mule.”
Granny’s eyes widened, her jaw dropped, and she stepped up and took another look. “Humph.”
“Humph yourself. I think it’s time you and Mother stopped meddling in my life. I don’t wish to marry. That man or any other.”
Granny pulled on one of Nora-Leigh’s curls. “In a pig’s eye. Every woman wants to marry.”
She knew she was lying when she said, “I don’t.”
“In all my born days, gal. What’s wrong with you?”
Nora-Leigh cocked her head to one side. “I want to travel around the world. I want to go adventuring, and see new things and…well, seek my fortune.”
“Phooey. You can seek your fortune right here in Steamboat Bend. Actually right there across the way. I’d wager that’s a man who could set your blood to boiling and make it an adventure in the bargain.”
Nora-Leigh couldn’t help but smile. “Granny, what a thing to say.”
“Honey, you’re not getting any younger.”
Nora-Leigh wrapped an arm around her grandmother’s stooped, shawl-covered shoulder and gave her an affectionate squeeze. “I love you, but you sound just like Mother. Come and sit down. Let’s have tea ready for her when she gets home from visiting with Auntie Sarah, and just forget all this silly talk of marriage.”
“It’s not silly.”
Nora-Leigh barely managed not to roll her eyes as she helped Granny to the sofa. “Where’s Gramps?” she called over her shoulder as she headed for the kitchen.
Granny gave an unladylike snort. “That old man. He’s outside puttering in his garden. Why, he hasn’t grown a vegetable worth putting up in forty years. I don’t know why he thinks he can start now. Montana just doesn’t have the good rich soil for gardening, not like they do back East.”
Nora-Leigh stuck her head around the corner. “But I thought you loved Steamboat Bend.”
“I do, honey, I do. It’s just that you can’t grow anything here but rocks and fanciful legends.”
Nora-Leigh wrapped her arms around her waist and sighed, then leaned against the doorframe. “That’s just what I love about Montana…the folk tales, the superstitions, the Indian lore. It’s all so interesting, except that I never get out of Steamboat Bend and it’s about as exciting as watching grass grow.”
Granny shook her head, her mouth set in a thin line. “You and your grandpa–two peas in a pod. If it weren’t for his rheumtiz, I believe he’d take you up on that adventuring, prospecting for gold or finding lost treasure or some such nonsense.”
Nora-Leigh grinned. “What fun that would be.”
Granny grinned in return. “You know you’re giving your mother gray hairs with the things you do–riding that bicycle all over town and wearing men’s trousers. Why, when you cut off all your pretty hair I thought Elsa was going to swoon.”
“Mother can be such a stick-in-the-mud sometimes. She needs to be more modern. Modern women are cutting their hair.”
“And you’re a modern woman, huh?”
“Go make the tea, dearie,” Granny said, then she motioned Nora-Leigh closer. When she bent down, Granny whispered, “I love your short hair. I might even cut my own but don’t you dare tell that ole stick-in-the-mud.”
Nora-Leigh smiled, then gave Granny a gentle hug. “Thank you, Granny. I think I’ll go change and ride my bicycle down to meet Mother, and then walk her back home.”
“Oh, that will delight the poor woman,” Granny muttered. “She so loves to hear about you riding that contraption around town in your trousers for all and sundry to see.”
Nora-Leigh winked at her grandmother. “I know.”
* * *
Clay Sullivan tossed his hat on his head and headed his horse toward the boarding house that the liveryman suggested as a good place to stay. He stated that the food was good and plentiful, and the widow woman who owned the place was pretty and welcoming to bachelors. That last was said with a wink and a knowing grin. The boarding house was definitely worth a look.
Before he set out of town again, he needed a place to stay where he could chart his maps. The thought of a nice hot soak in a real tub sounded good, too. He’d camped just outside of town last night to clear his head and focus on his new undertaking. He’d cleaned up in a cold stream.
Once he was settled he could ask around town about the legendary lost gold shipment that had brought him to Steamboat Bend in the first place. He knew the old-timers loved a good yarn and this one was as good as any.
Unless he found someone who had either worked on the Far West or been on the freight wagon that was carting the shipment, he doubted it would be found so many years after the fact. But the army was paying cash money to search for the missing gold and he would get paid regardless. Of course it didn’t hurt that if he found the gold he would get a percentage and that little chunk of change would make a nice down payment on the cattle ranch he planned to start. It was his last assignment for the army. Their guns were no longer needed in the West as the Indians were mostly quiet on the reservations, and the railroads were bringing in settlers by the carload.
He walked his horse past the schoolhouse and with a smile turning up his mouth, recalled meeting the schoolmarm yesterday. What a corker she was. He was surprised the good townsfolk allowed such an odd upstart to mold the mind of their precious offspring.
A woman took a hesitant step off the porch of the house next to the school and cocked her head as if listening to the sounds around her. She was older than Clay and yet, he found her uncommonly attractive and somewhat familiar. Coal black hair laced with streaks of silver surrounded an unlined ivory complexion and a tentative smile. She walked out onto the porch and didn’t even squint against the late afternoon sun.
She waved a friendly greeting in his direction. Despite the fact that she was old enough to be his mother, he found himself staring at the handsome woman.
His stallion, Jolly, sensed his lack of attention. The horse shied, sidestepping and prancing, his hooves kicking up dust and dirt. Losing a stirrup, Clay found it took all his concentration just to keep his seat. By the time Jolly quieted, the damned horse proceeded to step right into the path of a two-wheeled contraption that Clay had only seen recently in his travels.
The rider swerved the newfangled machine to avoid collision, hit a hole in the road and tumbled ass-over-teakettle into the dirt.
The older woman screeched as the conveyance and the boy on it cartwheeled in a confusion of arms, legs, churning wheels and a wholly enlightened vocabulary.
“What the devil!” Clay vaulted from his mount and rushed over. He crouched down and grasped the young man’s slender arm. Pulling him to a sitting position he asked, “Are you all right?”
The youngster stood, jerking his arm from Clay’ grasp. He dusted off the seat of his trousers and stared up at him with a clear, disarming gaze. Dust coated his face from forehead to obstinate chin. “You should watch where you’re going, Mr. Sullivan.”
Clay opened his mouth to speak when he recognized her. Long, black-velvet eyelashes and large, almond-shaped hazel eyes. His gaze lowered to discover a familiar button nose, parted pink lips. He couldn’t help himself as his eyes drifted even lower to full breasts pushing against a man’s chambray shirt. The schoolmarm. A woman, all right, with a smallish waist and rounded hips that no trousers could ever hope to disguise. His hand burned where he’d touched her arm. He swallowed…hard. He dropped his hand to his side.
“You. Again!” Clay swallowed, and found himself repeating his earlier question. “Are you all right?” He brought his gaze back to her fetching face. She stared right back at him.
She started to brush off the front of her dirty shirt, but when she saw him watching her, she stopped, her hand poised mid-air. Instead she pointed a finger at herself. “Of course it’s me. I could have been killed.”
By this time the older woman found her way into the street. She took the girl by the shoulders and in a strange manner that Clay found perplexing, her hands mapped the younger woman from head to toe. “Are you all right, Nellie?”
“I’m fine, really. Will everyone please stop asking me that?”
“You gave me quite a fright,” she said.
“Me too, ma’am.”
The young woman turned and stabbed Clay in the chest with a well-placed finger. “You weren’t watching where you were going.”
“That’s a fact. I caught a glimpse of this handsome woman here and plumb lost my head.” He tipped his hat to the woman. “Sorry, ma’am.”
The younger woman placed both hands on her hips. From eyes that could freeze boiling water in less than a minute, she stung him with her indignant gaze again. “I think you owe me an apology, too.”
“I apologize…Nellie.” He couldn’t help but see the agonized expression that crossed her face by the use of the pet name. She most definitely wasn’t a Nellie. Nellies were sweet natured and compliant, not like this girl who was as prickly as a desert cactus. He bent forward and fingered one of the short curls that poked out beneath the ugly hat. The tips barely grazed the curve of her chin. He knew it was personal and a question a gentleman would never ask, but he couldn’t stop himself. The woman brought out the rascal in him. “Who scalped your hair, Nellie?”
She slapped his hand away. “That’s none of your business, and it’s Miss Dillon to you, sir.”
“Nellie, where are your manners?”
Nora-Leigh. Now that name most definitely suited her.
The older woman offered her hand to Clay but her eyes didn’t seem to be focusing on him.
Clay felt like kicking himself. He realized belatedly that the woman was blind or at least partially sightless. Talk about blind! He was a blind fool for not noticing sooner.
“I’m Elsa Dillon and if you haven’t guessed as much already, this hoydenish girl is my daughter.”
He gently took the older woman’s hand. “Pleased, ma’am. Clay Sullivan.” He turned toward the outspoken daughter and said, “Why, Miss Dillon, so good to see you again.”
Her rosy mouth turned down at the corners, and she gave him a grudging nod. “Mr. Sullivan.”
“Briefly,” Nora Leigh and Clay said simultaneously.
“And what are you doing in Steamboat Bend, sir?” Mrs. Dillon asked.
Clay wasn’t sure how to reply to the question without sounding impolite or at the least, unfriendly. Even though employed by the army as a civilian scout, their policy was to keep a low profile if possible. Still Steamboat Bend wasn’t overly big and his business was sure to be known before long. Still, some cards should be played close to the vest. Going after lost gold shipments for the federal army was undoubtedly one of them. And his superiors wouldn’t want everyone and their long lost uncle heading out to the Crow Reservation with a shovel and a pick, digging up trouble between the Indians and the civilians. That’s why Ethan had suggested the damned pirate disguise.
“A business venture,” he finally replied. He picked up Jolly’s reins and waited, watching Nellie as she bent over–Good God, but those trousers fit her in an interesting way–and righted her bicycle. “Those two-wheeled contraptions are something, all right.”
Mrs. Dillon shook her head. “Dangerous is what they are. I’m sorry about the accident.”
“No harm done.”
She glanced in the direction of her daughter and gave her an unmistakable look of displeasure. “This time.”
“Mother, your tea will be cold by the time we get home.” Nora-Leigh mounted the bicycle, stretching her trousers enticingly across her rounded backside. Clay had a difficult time yanking his gaze away.
With one foot on the ground and one on a pedal, Nora-Leigh cleared her throat when she caught him staring. He jerked his head away from staring at her fetching behind and instead captured the young woman’s blushing gaze. Her eyes grew large and liquid before she glanced away from his unwavering stare of interest. Subtlety had never been his game. “Sorry about the accident. You’re sure you’re all right?”
“Right as rain.” Somehow it didn’t sound as if she meant it. She took the bicycle for a turn in front of the school. “It seems to be all right,” she called out.
Clay couldn’t take his eyes off her. Long legs pumped the pedals, the wheels turned, and her rump hitched rhythmically back and forth. Back and forth. Back and forth. His mind reeled.
“She’s a handful, that one,” her mother said for his ears only.
Clay shot Mrs. Dillon a glance. Curiously she was smiling at him. It was a good thing she couldn’t see him ogling her daughter. She’d probably have him arrested. At the moment, though, even if his life depended on it, Clay couldn’t have disagreed with her. He’d enjoy a couple handfuls himself.
“You know, Mr. Sullivan,” she whispered with a twinkling in her opaque eyes, “I can’t see at all in the distance, but I do have limited vision up close. Not well enough to read a book, mind you, but well enough to read faces and yours is speaking volumes.”
Slightly embarrassed, he jerked his gaze away from Nora-Leigh’s enticing backside and grinned at her mother. “Pardon me, ma’am.”
She patted his arm. “Perhaps it was ungentlemanly to stare but it was also unladylike of me to comment about it and embarrass you in such a fashion. I just couldn’t seem to help myself, though. Nora-Leigh is a beautiful young woman when you take the time to look past her eccentricities.”
“I’m sure she is,” he agreed, “but I deserved to be put in my place.” It didn’t matter what he thought of the woman. He had a job to do for which he could claim a tidy sum of money if he accomplished it on schedule. He didn’t have the patience or the inclination to court independent-minded schoolmarms who dressed like boys and acted like they didn’t care that they were scandalizing their own family and the entire community as well.
Nora Leigh dismounted. She took her mother’s arm and guided her to the side of the road. “We really must be going. Mother.”
Clay watched her maneuver her bicycle contraption and deftly hold onto her mother’s arm at the same time as they walked down the street. He shook his head. What a corker! He’d do well to steer clear of that one.