Coming in late, heads turned when Telt entered the church. He wouldn’t have been late, but he’d gone home to change his clothes because his one and only white shirt was covered with grime, and he’d torn his good trousers. Now he had on a pair of work dungarees and a clean, blue plaid shirt. It didn’t feel right wearing-work day clothes to church. Damn-it-all, anyway.
The consequences of getting involved in Miss O’Bannon’s struggles were expensive; he needed to keep that in mind. When he came within an arm’s length of the woman, he noticed, he had a tendency to lose perspective. It was a physical thing. She stirred his blood—he wasn’t sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing.
But the roof of the mercantile was done, now leak-proof. With Percy’s help, the three of them had made short work of the job. Wren O’Bannon did her share and then some, and without a peep of complaint.
As his eyes adjusted from the bright morning sunlight to the softer light inside the little church, he noticed a lot of people were in attendance today. He didn’t think for one minute they were here to listen to Percy give one of his mind-numbing sermons. No, indeed, they were here to get a look at the new owner of the mercantile and to observe, first-hand, the ongoing feud between Miss O’Bannon and the mayor Howard Buttrum. Telt muttered a curse on the man, then felt ashamed of himself for cursing on the Sabbath.
He searched the congregation and found Miss O’Bannon seated on the aisle, three rows down. She’d changed into that frilly, cream-colored blouse. He liked how it accentuated her nice full bosom. But he didn’t much care for that straw hat she had on her head, it hid all that glorious hair. She turned around for a quick glance as he took his place at the back of the room. She looked down right away, avoiding eye contact.
Telt spotted the back of Howards’s square head and the back of Eula’s best bonnet in the pew at the front of the church, and Lottie sitting next to Eula.
Lottie. No woman had bonnets like the ones Lottie wore. She made them herself. They were one of a kind frippery things, all lace, ribbons and bows. She sneaked a peek over her shoulder to the back of the room and gave him a shy, dimpled smile and a nod before turning back to rise to her feet for the opening hymn.
Mr. Terrel’s commanding presence before his congregation impressed Wren. To her, Mr. Terrel, Percy, gave the impression of being shy, tongue-tied, but up in his pulpit he appeared confident, almost eloquent, when he spoke. She smiled up at him when he looked out over his flock, his tenor voice raised in song. His complexion turned bright pink by her doing so, and she almost giggled.
He cleared his throat at the end of the song, announcing, “We would like to take this time to welcome to our community Miss Wren O’Bannon, the new owner of the Laura Creek Mercantile.” As he looked in her direction, Wren suspected him of looking at her hat to avoid her eyes…that tickled her.
Everyone turned in her direction. She nodded and smiled. He went on with a few other announcements: a new birth, and a coming potluck after the Wednesday night choir practice. He led the congregation in a prayer for Grandma Tatom, too ill to attend church services today. He also led the congregation in a prayer for four-year old Pauly Brandtmeyer, who had stayed home with the mumps.
While up on the roof this morning, she’d gleaned from Percy some interesting information regarding Mr. Buttrum, his wife, and their relationship with Judge Crookshank. Once Percy opened up, she didn’t have to do much prodding. He told her Howard Buttrum, born and raised in Chicago, attended Harvard with the then Mr. Francis Crookshank, now Judge Crookshank. Good friends then, and good friends now. He told her all about himself, about his wife leaving him and Shorty. The man simply unloaded a raft of history without her even asking.
Wren thought about trying to get the sheriff to cough up some information about himself, but didn’t even try. Working together up on the roof without speaking, anticipating each other’s moves and needs, felt very intimate…a bonding took place. She found it disconcerting to work in tandem with someone. She’d always worked alone, expecting no one to help her, or work with her. It was a lovely feeling, a heart-warming feeling. She shouldn’t be feeling anything—there was no future in it.
Telt couldn’t take his eyes off her. Even the back of her head kept his attention. He sure would like to know what she was thinking. If he could see into her eyes, maybe he could read her mind. This morning, up there on that roof working with her, they’d done just that, read each other’s minds. He’d never been able to do that with anyone before. No words spoken, no words needed, they worked in harness together…a team.
“Before I deliver our sermon for the day, are there any announcements anyone would like to make?” Percy asked to bring everyone’s attention to the business portion of the service.
A silence came over the room. Telt blinked and watched her come to her feet. Instantly a knot of dread formed in his gut. The pew creaked as she rose, the sound reverberating throughout the room. She stood there with a hymnal clutched to her waist, one hand on the back of the pew in front of her.
He pushed himself off the wall he’d been leaning against, alert now. Who could guess what the woman was up to? He figured Miss O’Bannon had a purpose to every move she made. He wouldn’t be at all surprised if she instigated a riot. Telt shifted his gaze to where Howard sat. He saw the man lurch forward, shift his body to glare at the woman. Telt hoped he wouldn’t have to intervene; he’d left his pistol at the office.
Miss O’Bannon turned Telt’s way and looked right at him, then ducked her head. In that brief second of eye contact, she’d revealed her vulnerability, but only to him. He wanted very much to go to her, stand at her side, give her his support, but he held himself back, stayed rooted to his post at the back of the church.
“Miss O’Bannon,” Percy said, by way of acknowledging her, “do you have something you wish to say?”
To Telt it looked like she hesitated, maybe having second thoughts. When she dipped down, he thought she would sit down, but she laid the hymnal on the seat behind her. As her eyes scanned the congregation, he caught the tentative smile on her lips before she pulled herself up, preparing to speak.
She no sooner cleared her throat than Howard shot to his feet, no doubt intending to stop her. Telt held back the urge to holler at him to sit down and shut up. However, Eula knew how to control her husband. She grabbed the man by the seat of his pants and pulled him back down onto the hard bench. As a result, a loud thud echoed throughout the church. There ensued a moment or two of snickers and whispers as every eye followed the byplay. Heads swiveled back and forth, to Miss O’Bannon, to Howard, then back to settle on Miss O’Bannon. Under normal circumstances, Telt would’ve thought it funny too, but he didn’t like the tension in the room.
“I would like to thank you all for the warm welcome,” Miss O’Bannon said. Telt thought she sounded a little nervous, shaky. He saw her grip the pew in front of her, probably to steady herself.
Wren had a complicated proposal to make, although she’d broken it down and put it in the form of a simple request. Her idea had to work. It could very well be the only way she would get done what needed to be done. She took a deep breath to steady herself and screw up her courage before saying, “There are several things that need to be done at the mercantile before I can open for business, most of them well beyond my capabilities. I have a list. What I would like to do is offer merchandise in exchange for skilled labor…or building materials.
“If any of you would be interested in an exchange, I will be at the store this afternoon, and we can discuss, in detail, the possibilities. In the coming weeks I hope I’ll have an opportunity to meet all of you. I look forward to our becoming good friends and neighbors.” She smiled her best smile and reclaimed her seat. The buzz of excitement that ensued pleased her, but she had to sit down, her legs felt as if they were made of jelly.
As the sermon followed her announcement, the little church grew stuffy with the noonday sun. With more singing than sermon, the service was blessedly brief. Wren stood outside the church afterward, visiting with a group of ladies who bombarded her with questions about what kinds of wares she intended to stock in her store.
As they stood there talking, she tried to memorize their names. There was Mary Brandtmeyer, a very plain but sturdy woman, who had a toddler attached to her hip. Mary’s husband owned the sawmill. The husbands of Mrs. Edna Claussen and Mrs. Meirs owned the rock quarry. Wren could remember Mrs. Claussen because she spoke with a thick German accent and Mrs. Meirs was the only colored woman among Laura Creek’s population. The widow Margret Tatom, she discovered to be the daughter-in-law of the absent Grandma Tatom for whom they had prayed. Susan Hobart didn’t have any front teeth, and her husband Ned worked at the mill. An elderly lady by the name of LuLu Olhouser, ninety if she was a day and almost deaf, lived in town with her daughter Pammy Deeds, who translated for her in a combination of inventive sign language and short-speak. Pammy’s husband, George, worked at the mill.
Wren received several invitations for Sunday dinner, including one from Eula Buttrum, but she turned them all down. Truly, she had a lot to do. She didn’t have time to socialize.
She could feel the sheriff watching her. She wanted to deny herself the pleasure of looking into his all-too-penetrating gaze. But couldn’t resist. Everything about Telt Longtree pleasured her: the way he worked, moved, talked. Common sense warned her if she allowed her heart to have its way, her life would become very complicated and very painful very quickly.
Lottie Bledsoe had the sheriff by the arm. Miss Bledsoe wore a sunny yellow dress of gauze over a white satin underdress. She’d artistically woven sky-blue ribbons into the puffy sleeves and around the lace at her throat. She had upon her hair of gold a straw bonnet, tied with a blue ribbon beneath her almost-chin. The couple stood in Wren’s peripheral view, Lottie doing most of the talking. Wren could hear Miss Bledsoe clearly and suspected the woman spoke every word for her benefit.
“We’re going to have fried chicken for our Sunday dinner, your favorite,” Lottie said to the sheriff, who, Wren noticed, stood as stiff as a wooden post, his shoulders back and chin tucked in. “Aunt Eula has baked your favorite lemon pie. I thought, after we eat, we could take a walk along the creek. It would be lovely and cool. Maybe we could take a blanket and sit awhile. I have a new book of sonnets. We could read aloud to one another.”
Wren didn’t wait to hear the sheriff’s response to all of Miss Bledsoe’s plans. It simply was none of her business. Besides, she had to get away, or she would explode into a giggling fit.
Setting off towards her camp, she muttered to herself, “Sonnets, indeed.” To her mind, the sheriff wasn’t the sort who would appreciate sonnets, but then you just never knew; but Wren couldn’t picture it.
She told herself she must fight against the urge to save him from Miss Lottie’s clutches; she should let him suffer, the big oaf. If he couldn’t see Miss Lottie was all wrong for him, then she certainly didn’t want him.
No, she had to stay out of it. He was spoken for or as good as. More to the point, he presented a complication she didn’t need. She had to live here. She had to work here and make her way. There could never be anything between them. Lottie, Wren was certain, would see to that.
Telt followed Miss O’Bannon’s retreat with his eyes, no longer listening to Lottie plan his day. If Miss O’Bannon thought she could glide away without explaining herself, she had another think coming. That woman was plotting some kind of retribution…keeping notes in a little black book. Not only that, she’d stopped arguing with Howard; had just let him blow. That wasn’t right.
Women, it had been Telt’s experience, loved to argue, especially if they were right. Miss O’Bannon had something up her sleeve.
As for Lottie Bledsoe, Telt didn’t like her planning his every minute. He sure as hell didn’t intend to sit in the shade and read sonnets to her. Never. She’d been getting awfully pushy lately. Miss Bledsoe made it sound like it was a done deal, she had him all hobbled and hog-tied.
While Telt mulled over his predicament, the banker and his wife joined them.
“That woman is up to something,” Howard said, echoing Telt’s thoughts exactly, but for different reasons. They both watched Miss O’Bannon pick her way across the meadow with her skirts held up as she waded through the tall, dry grass, headed toward her wagons. “After our Sunday dinner, you get down to that store and keep an eye on her.”
“We were going for a walk after dinner down by the creek, Uncle Howard,” complained Lottie, her mouth forming a pout. She looked like a pouting child, a child who was about to stomp her foot in protest. It came as something of a surprise to Telt to know the woman could express that much disappointment.
“The sheriff won’t have time for that kind of falderal today. A sheriff is on duty seven days a week, twenty-four hours a day, Lottie. Better get used to that right now,” said Howard.
For a moment there, Telt thought Lottie might stick her tongue out at her uncle. To her credit, she didn’t. She prudently looked down at her feet and bit back whatever she wanted to say in rebuttal.
Telt didn’t care much for the sound of any of this. Damn, they did: Buttrum, Mrs. Buttrum, Lottie, probably the whole damned town, had him all wrapped up. This situation reminded him of the day they’d stuck him with the damn job of being sheriff in this one-horse town. He’d been labeled the prize package then, and now they’d tagged him as the chump to wed the schoolmarm. Well, damn. Everybody, the whole damn town, had another think comin’ if they thought he’d stand around and let them serve him up like…like a Christmas ham.
“It’s Sunday, Howard, such a lovely day. Surely the sheriff and Lottie can have the afternoon to enjoy themselves,” she said with a sweet smile directed to Lottie and a smile and a wink to Telt.
Telt could see by the unreceptive curl of his lips that Howard wanted to put his wife in her place, but Telt forestalled him. He had to take back his life, and right now. “Well, Ma’am, your husband is right,” he said to Mrs. Buttrum, which caused Howard to nod with satisfaction and Eula to purse her pretty lips in forbearance.
“I am on duty every day,” he confirmed, turning to face Lottie, hoping to discourage her desire to form a union. “I’m on duty twenty-four hours a day. Sunday’s are no different from any other day, so I’ll have to give a pass on that fried chicken, Miss Lottie. You sure do make a good fried chicken. Nobody can argue that. But I’ve got some things I need to take care of right away.”
To get Howard off his back he said, “I’ll be sure to drop in at the mercantile this afternoon.” With that said, he tipped his hat to the ladies, backed up, then spun around, and taking big strides, he started after Miss O’Bannon.
Muttering to himself, he started out across the meadow, “I’ll keep my eye on the O’Bannon woman, all right.” He hadn’t seen Queenie since this morning when he spied her from up there on the roof of the mercantile, cavorting with Miss O’Bannon’s mutt. He suspected he’d find her out in the meadow with that damned mongrel. “And…I’m gonna get my darn dog back,” he vowed.
“Uncle Howard, why did you send him away?” Lottie whined with tears of frustration trickling down her pale cheeks. “Now he’s not even going to have dinner with us. He’s going after that…that woman.”
Lottie couldn’t believe it, it was happening again. She knew it, another suitor slipping through her fingers; she could see it happening all over again. She wanted to lie down on the ground, tear her hair out and pitch a fit. No one cared about her needs, her dreams they came as a distant second to everyone else’s agenda.
Two years ago, living in Chicago with her parents, she’d fallen madly in love with a young man by the name of Wesley Potter. Before she and Wesley could set a wedding date, her parents shipped her off to the wilds of Oregon to live with her aunt and uncle. With no regard for her feelings in the matter, they arranged for her to make use of her college education to become Laura Creek’s new schoolteacher. Everyone assumed she would forget Wesley Potter. And she had, almost, because of her interest in Telt Longtree. Miserable, she began to sob with despair.
“Now see what you’ve done, Howard?” her Aunt Eula hissed. “You’ve upset Lottie. Honestly, Howard, sometimes you can be so thick-headed.” Her aunt wrapped an arm around her shoulder. “Surely the sheriff could have one day? Sunday, Howard. Surely the sheriff could have Sunday to devote to courting our dear Lottie?”
Lottie clasped her lace handkerchief to her bosom, her voice swamped with tears. “You’ve as good as pushed him into that woman’s arms, I just know it. He watches her, Uncle Howard.”
Her uncle waved away Lottie’s fear as if he waved away a pesky gnat. His callousness reminded Lottie of her father; he hadn’t sympathized with her dilemma either. Her Uncle Howard would never understand.
As proof, he declared, “Hogwash! I say to the both of you. Of course he’s watching the woman. The whole town thinks she’s a nuisance. She broke the peace and quiet of the Sabbath this morning up on that roof pounding away, showing her limbs to God and the world. Then she made a spectacle of herself…pleading for help in church, of all places. And besides, she’s a fraud. I hope the good people of this town have enough sense not to be drawn into her brazen, shifty dealings.” Her uncle went on to expand on his theme as if she and her aunt were dull-witted. “Longtree’s got better sense than to get tangled up with a conniving, she-devil like the O’Bannon female. A woman like that is nothing but trouble from the get-go. No, sir, the sheriff is watching her because he knows what I know. She isn’t what she says she is.”
Lottie could only stare at him; apparently he too thought Miss O’Bannon a calculating, crafty little witch. Uncle Howard didn’t like being made a fool. And Miss O’Bannon had managed to do that by purchasing the mercantile without him knowing she was a female. All he had to do was swallow his pride, accept the fact that he’d been outsmarted by a woman.
His whole life wasn’t on the line. He wasn’t the one whose heart would get crushed by a conniving, ambitious, intrepid baggage.
Howard took Lottie by the arm, put his other arm around his wife and led them away from church, headed toward home. As they passed between the bank and the mercantile, he said, “There’s something fishy about Miss O’Bannon. There’s something fishy about this whole thing. A woman on her own like that, it isn’t right. How is it she has enough money to set herself up in a mercantile? Tomorrow I’m going to start investigating. I want to talk to her family.”
Lottie sniveled and dabbed at her eyes with her lace kerchief, her lower lip trembling. She caught her aunt Eula’s eye. They exchanged glances. Tight lipped, Eula appeared angry and upset. Uncle Howard didn’t help the situation by reminding them both that he expected his Sunday dinner on the table in half an hour.
Lottie suspected her uncle knew very well how unhappy they were with the situation. He quickly changed his tone, offering Lottie a few well-chosen, condescending words meant to salve her disappointment. “We have to let the sheriff do his job, sweetheart. Don’t you fret, Lottie dear,” he said and pinched her cheek. “The sheriff is yours for the taking. I’ll have a little talk with Longtree. Once he sees the advantages of latching on to a fine little woman like you, why, he’ll want to get you to the altar before the-cat-can-lick-his-whiskers.”
“Sheriff Longtree, I haven’t time to chat just now,” Wren said, exasperated with herself for being unable to control her racing pulse after turning and finding the sheriff to be only a few paces behind her.
Mac and Queenie lay together in the shade beneath the first wagon. At the sound of her voice, Mac crawled out to bid her welcome with some investigative sniffing of her skirt. Queenie followed and butt-wagged over to lick the sheriff’s hand. Wren watched, and forgot to be impatient as the man gently loved-up his dog. She caught herself just before she started to sigh.
“Hello, there, Old Girl,” the sheriff said to his dog, kneeling down to give her a good rub. “Ever since that big lug came to town, you’re kind of fickle, you know,” he said, shaking her head and ruffling her ears.
Silently assuring herself she had herself in complete control of her emotions—and the situation—Wren stated, in her best no-nonsense tone, “I have work to do, Sheriff,” then removed her hat. “I need to change my clothes.”
“You go ahead, I can wait,” he said, still kneeling and petting his dog.
Wren narrowed her eyes and gave him a withering glance meant to send him about-face. He needed to leave and leave now. She put her hands on her hips and huffed, before reasoning, “Surely whatever we have to discuss can wait until later. I’ll be at the store in an hour or so.” She started to go around the side of her wagon to change her clothes.
“I’ll leave as soon as you tell me why you’re making entries in that little black book of yours.” When she turned to look into his eyes, she could see he was pleased to have stopped her in her tracks.
She purposefully retraced her steps, coming within a few feet of him, eyes direct and chin up. “Nothing illegal, Sheriff, I assure you.”
He didn’t blink, didn’t nod, didn’t look at all convinced. “You don’t seem like the type of female to play games,” he said, his eyes looking deep into her own. “But I’ve had enough experience to know some folks like to bend the truth to suit their own agenda. That can be kinda cute in a female, but sometimes it’s just plain infuriatin’.”
She almost snickered. She tried very hard not to give any tells. This was a poker game with high stakes. She had to play it close to the vest. “I don’t play games, Sheriff. I don’t have time. Recordkeeping is part of being in business.”
“In that case you won’t mind telling me what it’s all about. Why are you keeping track of my time and Percy’s time and your time? What are you up to, Miss O’Bannon?”
She took a moment to ask herself why all the questions? Then it occurred to her—his line of questioning had the smell of Howard T. Buttrum all over it.
“Oh, I see,” she murmured, narrowing her eyes, zeroing in on him. “Mr. Buttrum wants to know, doesn’t he? He sent you out here to sniff around, didn’t he? He wants to know about the little black book. Well, you tell Mr. Buttrum he’ll have to wait until the end of September, when the judge returns to Laura Creek, to find out what I’m about.”
She could see she’d hit a sore spot. He winced. “I’m not a sneaky spy,” he growled, on the defensive. “What the hell? Why does everybody assume I’m Howard Buttrum’s tool? I’m my own man, damn it! Buttrum doesn’t know anything about your little black book, and he won’t, because I have no intention of telling him,” he said, his jaw working and his blue eyes snapping with outrage.
She let her shoulders relax and unclenched her fists as she weighed his words, trying to decide if he was lying. No, she thought he was telling the truth. She’d personally witnessed the man go toe-to-toe with Mr. Buttrum. The sheriff didn’t impress her as a boot-licker. A man with eyes as clear blue as a mountain pool couldn’t…wouldn’t be a good liar.
She had to relent, at least a little. “Don’t worry about my black book, Sheriff,” she said over her shoulder as she started around the end of her wagon again, then stopped to add, “Believe me when I say it’s necessary, and no one will be hurt by it. As a matter of fact, it may well turn out to be a very good thing. But none of that matters at the moment.
“I have a lot to do before I can get to the store today. So you really must go,” she told him, “I have to change into my work clothes.”
“Like I said, go ahead. I’ve seen you in your underclothes. I didn’t mind a bit,” he said, a playful gleam in his eyes that did little to settle her nerves. “I won’t soon forget, either. You’re a very handsome woman, Miss O’Bannon.”
Now why is he resorting to false flattery? Wren felt her cheeks flame with outrage. Why is he deliberately provoking me, baiting me? Well, she would not go down that road. No, sir.
Gathering all of her dignity about her, she took a stab at his pride. “Shouldn’t you be attending Miss Bledsoe? I thought I heard her say something about you and she going down to the creek to read sonnets or something.” The second the words came out of her mouth she knew her mistake. Yes, she’d been eavesdropping on their conversation. But the sheriff’s initial response was satisfying, nonetheless. He physically blanched, blinked several times, and his jaw clenched up.
Telt stood there, impotent, grinding his teeth. Women! They had bigger ears than a jackrabbit. Oh, she looked pleased with herself, her lips turned up in a cute little smirk. She’d made a direct hit, all right. It took a second or two longer than he would have liked, but he finally untied his tongue. “Don’t much care for poetry, Ma’am. I’m more of a hands-on kind of man,” he said, and moved in on her. Now it was her turn to squirm. “Besides, I’d rather be here with you,” he added for good measure, his voice smooth and compelling.
She shook her head at him, but he kept moving in on her.
“I…I expect you to be a gentleman,” she stammered. “You…need to leave me to change my clothes…in private,” she said, her voice trembling. She was probably hoping to discourage him by turning her back on him.
Telt grinned at her dismissal. Oh, this lady had a lot to learn if she thought he could be gotten rid of that easily.
“It’s a beautiful Sunday afternoon,” he said, turning his face to the crystal-clear, blue sky. “You worked hard this morning. What work do you have to do that’s so urgent you have to get it done on a Sunday afternoon? Surely, whatever it is can wait until tomorrow.”
She hustled around the end of her wagon, and he burst out laughing.
Drat the man, he was laughing at her…again…giving her that grin. She couldn’t look at him for more than a second without melting, and he knew it, the devil. She scolded herself as she slipped behind her wagon, well out of his view.
Her work clothes were hanging on a nail on the side of her wagon. As she slipped out of her russet skirt and blouse and donned her work clothes, Wren wondered why he’d singled her out. She was nothing out of the common way. No man had ever taken the least bit of interest in her. There had to be some way of making herself impervious to his slow way of breaking down her defenses.
Her fingers went to work in a flutter of precision as she wound her hair up into a bun on top of her head and stuck a couple of combs in it to hold her curls in place. She found her old felt hat up on the wagon seat and smashed it on her head, knowing full-well it was awful and made her look like an old hag.
Speaking up so that he could hear, she told him, “Nothing to do? On the contrary, Sheriff, I have a lot to do. I’ve no time to while away the afternoon in your company or the company of anyone,” she said, coming around the wagon to face him.
She forced herself to look him squarely in the eye. “I have a considerable number of very urgent matters that need to be taken care of right away. I need to get them done before I go over to the store. You have to leave, Sheriff, now,” she ordered.
“Not until you tell me what’s so all-fired urgent you haven’t got time to talk a minute,” he said, moving in on her like a wolf for the kill, his tone suddenly impatient and deadly serious.
Wren took a step back and found the wagon pressed against her shoulders. She couldn’t look away. He had her pinned. Of a sudden she found it hard to breathe. There wasn’t enough air. This wasn’t fear; this was something else. His eyes were devouring her. Wren had never swooned in her life, but she could respect those ladies who had done so. Now she understood.
“I…I need to unload my wagons,” she said, her voice failing her, coming out in more of a squeak than a steady, confident tone. She moved to duck under his arm. He stopped her with a light touch of his hand on her shoulder. His head tilted just slightly, the better to maintain eye contact.
Wren attempted to pull herself together. She felt ridiculous. It was exactly as she had feared. She had become a simpering ninny just by his proximity. She had to stop it, and stop it right now.
She squared her shoulders and tipped her face up to meet his eyes and hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. “I only have so much time to figure out how I’m going to store everything. I have to unload these wagons, Sheriff,” she said, her hands flying out in all directions as her frustration level mounted, eroding her control.
“I’d thought to have a store where I could put all the goods I brought with me. I thought I had a store with a storeroom. Now I shall have to put some things in the old lean-to out here in the meadow. I really don’t want to do that, because anyone who cares to can come along and help themselves. The dry-goods and perishables, I’ll have to put upstairs in what was to be my living quarters, because there are no shelves on which to display them. That means I will be living out here until display shelves can be found.”
Wren felt the tears well up into her throat. She cursed her vulnerability. It was unfair she lose control in front of this man, unfair he could make her feel so weak-minded and vulnerable. Why did she have to break down now, in front of this man, of all people?
Telt looked into her eyes. The bravado, the façade, was but a thin veil, a disguise to hide her uncertainty. He realized it for an act of self-preservation. Miss O’Bannon presented herself in such a way that gave people the impression she knew exactly what she was doing at all times. But her eyes gave her away; she was just going at it one thing at a time and hoping it would all work out. Telt couldn’t help himself; he had to touch her, try to sooth away her fears and all the uncertainty.
He ran his finger along her stubborn little chin and let it roam up the side of her jaw to her cheek. He couldn’t stop; those big, brown eyes and dark lashes, moist with unshed tears, drew him in like a moth to a flame. Before he knew it, his lips were on hers. At first, the kiss was light.
He gave her a minute to decide if she liked it or not. He figured the slap would be coming any minute if she decided the latter.
With his eyes open, braced for the smack, he watched as her eyelids fluttered closed, her dark, moist lashes brushing her soft cheek. Her hat fell off the back of her head, and the combs that were holding her luxurious hair went with it. Her curls, set free, cascaded down around her face and down her back. Instead of a slap in the face, he heard her sigh in surrender. Her hands slid up his chest to his neck, then to the sides of his face to pull him down. Her body begged him to deepen the kiss and gave him permission to explore at will. Telt gathered her in closer. She came willingly.
Her lips parted, accepting his tongue. His body responded to her whimper of need. With one hand on her waist, he used the other hand to fondle and tease one of her firm, round breasts through the fabric of her blouse. He felt her buck with shock at his intimate touch.
Then her tongue was taking over his mouth. He slid his hand down to grasp one rounded half of her beautiful backside and pressed her hips closer against his. His desire was apparent. Of her own volition, she moved her hips over his, grinding against his straining erection.
Telt found himself in the position of being the one to hold on to a shred of control. He pulled back. She was on her tiptoes, her eyes still closed, her lips parted; every inch of her begging for more.
They were standing out in the open meadow in plain view of the whole town. Telt glanced over his shoulder toward the church and saw a small herd of men starting out across the meadow, coming in their direction. His voice hoarse with desire, he said to her upturned face, “You got company comin’.”
He knew she didn’t understand why he’d stopped.
“What?” she asked, her voice a whisper.
“You got company comin’,” he said, finding his voice, and moved aside so she could see for herself.
“Oh, good heavens! I need a minute,” she cried, eyes flying open. One hand going to her throat and the other to her tumbling hair, she fled behind the wagon. Telt took a deep breath. At some point, he’d lost his hat. He spotted it there under the wagon. By the time he retrieved it and had it in place on his head, once again the blood flowed, no longer pooling in his groin.
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