Iâ€™ve never been good at selecting excerpts, so forgive me if itâ€™s a bit long. 🙂 Also, some of the words are spelled in British English, because my wonderful publisher, Total-e-bound is located there.
Set up: Widow, Beatrice Gaitland, feeds the less fortunate minors of Tombstone every Sunday night at what she calls, â€œStone Soup Night.â€ She cooks fixinâ€™s provided by the townsfolk. Luke and Beatrice donâ€™t know it yet, but theyâ€™ve met before . . .
Touching the brim of his hat in what the West thought of as a proper greeting, he spoke to Beatrice.
â€œHello, maâ€™am, miss.â€ He sent a polite glance Ginnyâ€™s way. â€œThese chickens are from Bauerâ€™s meat market, for the supper tonight.â€
Taking a breath, she nodded. â€œThank you, misterâ€”â€
â€œYou can call me Luke.â€
Perceiving his youth in comparison to her own age, Beatrice didnâ€™t feel uncomfortable using his given name, even though he couldnâ€™t have been too much younger than she. Moreover, she refused to include his striking good looks into the equation. â€œLuke. Thank you.â€ She turned to Ginny. â€œTake the chickens andâ€”â€
â€œUh,â€ he interrupted, â€œI wouldnâ€™t mind dressing the varmints for you.â€
Beatrice grinned at the funny way heâ€™d spoken of the meat. â€œAll right, Luke, pluck away.â€
He pinched the brim of his hat again and made his way towards where the stream ran, snake-like, at the bottom of the hill.
â€œCousins and corsets, I ainâ€™t never seen a finer lookinâ€™ man.â€ Ginny beamed the moment Luke stepped out of hearing range.
Beatrice turned to her young companion. â€œIf your mother were to hear you talk in such a mannerâ€”â€
â€œSheâ€™d agree in a heartbeat! Did you see those straight, white teeth and that silky blond hair? Did I mention his wide shoulders?â€
â€œHe had an agreeable smile,â€ she offered as she sliced into a potato, staring unseeing at it, and keeping her face as still as a statueâ€™s. Ginnyâ€™s accurate observations nearly caused girlish giggles to bubble up from her very depths, and if Beatrice gave in sheâ€™d be obliged to confess her own reflections when askedâ€”and there wasnâ€™t the slightest doubt that Ginny would ask.
â€œHis smile wasnâ€™t the only thing agreeable, Mrs Gaitland. You watched him walk away, same as I did.â€
This time, a squawk of laughter almost escaped her. â€œThat will be enough, dear. Ladies donâ€™t say things like that aloud. It would behove you to remember such,â€ she said in a maternal tone, although the grand cathedral bells were not quite finished ringing in her head from the encounter.
â€œYer right. I shouldâ€™a just mentioned his beautiful mouth and be done with it.â€
â€œWhat? It was. Why, kissinâ€™ him would beâ€”â€
Beatrice actually choked before she found her voice. â€œGood heavens, Ginny! Where did you learn of such things?â€
â€œWell, I was over behind the Bird Cage one day, andâ€”â€
To be honest, Beatrice didnâ€™t want to hear her answer. â€œJust never mind.â€
â€œNow, Mrs Gaitland, a gal could come by some valuable particulars listeninâ€™ to the whores talk aboutâ€”â€
â€œThat will be all on the subject, dear.â€
â€œBut yer always sayinâ€™ how important an education is and those women really know a thing or twoâ€”â€
â€œA lady doesnâ€™t speak aboutâ€¦ Oh, go on into the tent now, and set the benches.â€
Although slightly perturbedâ€”the emotion revealed by the sour look on her faceâ€”Ginny did as she was told.
Beatrice lowered her gaze to the ground. â€œChildren these days.â€ She shook her head.
Had he really attended last week, and she hadnâ€™t noticed him then? The thought seemed impossible to her. But, for heavenâ€™s sakeâ€”she shook herself mentallyâ€”Stone Soup Hour was not meant to be a place to stir up a courtship.
Pushing her meandering thoughts aside, she stood and added the newly cubed vegetables to the cauldron.
Not long after, Luke came back and handed her the bowl of meat.
â€œI wondered where youâ€™d got off to.â€ She peered into the bowl and found she barely recognised its contents. â€œWhat have you done to the chicken?â€ She looked up at him for his answer.
Luke shrugged. â€œI went ahead and took out the bones and other undesirables.â€
â€œOh,â€ she said, and glanced into the bowl once again. â€œHow kind of you.â€ Unable to remain under his intense gaze, she occupied herself with spooning the meat and skin into the pot.
From the corner of her eye, she watched him inspect the area around the tent.
When his attention returned to her, he took a step closer to the fire and asked quietly, â€œHave we met before?â€
Beatrice couldnâ€™t bring herself to face him, owing to what she deemed to be a rather forward question coming from a stranger, not to mention the way his voice had rolled down her arms, she answered, â€œNo, sir. I have not seen you around these parts, and Iâ€™ve been living here for some time now.â€ Standing, she excused herself, set the bowl on a nearby bench and strode into the tent.
Wringing her hands against the irrational trembling, she called to Ginny who was at present arranging the seats for the guests. At Stone Soup Hour, they liked to sit in circles as opposed to rows as if they were in church.
Ginny looked up from across the tent. â€œOver here, Mrs Gaitland.â€
â€œGinny, I need you to come out and stir the stew.â€ Sheâ€™d sort of lied, but she could not go back out there alone with that beautiful man hovering over her like a bee buzzing around nectar. â€œGo on, I will finish up in here.â€
Ginny nodded knowingly. â€œHeâ€™s back, then.â€
â€œYou know who, Luke.â€
The young girlâ€™s voice dipped towards the seductive, but Beatrice ignored it. â€œYes, the meat is cooking now.â€
Ginny walked over to where Beatrice stood. â€œLast Sunday, it seemed he always had his eye on youâ€”at every moment he knew where you were, what you were doinâ€™. I tried to point it out to you then, but youâ€™d been so occupied with the stewâ€¦â€
â€œNonsense, Ginny. You have an overactive imagination, thatâ€™s all. Now go on and give the cauldron a stir or two.â€
Ginny harrumphed, a very grown-up sound to Beatriceâ€™s ears. As Ginny took her leave, she felt the girlâ€™s gaze upon her back, but didnâ€™t turn to acknowledge it.
While sunset coloured the sky with bright oranges, reds and twilight blues, the clearing next to the Shepherd of the Hills Church tent filled with hungry miners, each with his own tin cup or bowl. It was these poor minersâ€”the ones that hadnâ€™t found their fortune yetâ€”who plucked at Beatriceâ€™s heart strings. These men didnâ€™t loaf about, expecting to be taken care of, but hard-working ones, toiling daily to carve out a living.
Sheâ€™d never considered herself an overly religious person, not even after sheâ€™d married Lindley. Of course she believed in God, but her convictions dictated to her a more personal ministry. She wanted to do her little part to help her fellow man, even if it was feeding them once a week.
â€œSmells good, Mrs Gaitland.â€
â€œCan hardly wait, maâ€™am.â€
A few of the congregated delicately encouraged her to declare supper ready.
She checked once more to make sure the meat was fully cooked, then looked to the gathering. â€œAll right, gentlemen, chowâ€™s on,â€ she said with a friendly smile.
Doling out the aromatic stew, she accepted their thanks with quiet grace.
The miners filed into the tent, where lanterns had been lit for the evening meal. As the final man in line approached the cauldron, Beatrice looked up to see Luke standing just beyond him. It almost seemed as if Luke had lingered in anticipation of being the last man in the queue. But that was impossible. Wasnâ€™t it?
â€œThere was no need for you to wait, Luke. You did participate in the preparations, you know.â€
He shrugged a shoulder and held out his bowl, smiling. â€œIâ€™m not in any hurry. Besides, I like to watch you.â€ Heâ€™d added the latter in a soft murmur.
Unused to straightforward interaction with the opposite sex, she pretended not to hear the second half of his comment. â€œWell, next time you get to be the first. I insist.â€ The smile, which spread across her face, felt wooden as she spooned his meal into the proffered bowl.
Later, after seconds had been passed out, and the miners had departed, Ginny set the inside of the tent to rights. When sheâ€™d finished up, Beatrice shooed her on home. â€œSee you next week, Ginny?â€
Ginny waved in acknowledgement and departed down the path.
â€œHow did your Stone Soup Hour turn out tonight? You had a hearty attendance, I trust?â€ Allen asked as he approached the fire from beyond its light.
Beatrice smiled. â€œWe had a nice-sized crowd. Care for some? Itâ€™s chicken and vegetables this time around.â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™ll wait until you cook me my very own supper tonight.â€
Not wishing to be rude, but hoping to discourage him from waiting for her to cook another meal, she looked him squarely in the eyes. â€œAllen,â€ she began softly, â€œmy Sunday night supper usually consists of whatâ€™s left over from the pot.â€ She indicated the cauldron.
Allenâ€™s eyebrows rose as if he was on the verge of pointing out her insolence, but, at the last possible moment, he relaxed. â€œI see. Well, Iâ€™ll just go on over to the hotel then.â€ He turned on his heel and disappeared, seeping back into the darkness past the light of the campfire.
She watched him go. And refused to feel guilty about not catering to his every need, even though he provided her with an allowance, but, for heavenâ€™s sake, she wasnâ€™t his wife.
â€œThe man doesnâ€™t know what heâ€™s missing,â€ a warm voice murmured.
She looked up to see Luke, exactly who sheâ€™d thought had spoken. He stood not five feet away as he watched her. Beatrice was flattered to the tips of her toes and her cheeks heated. He was awfully fine-looking, and thus far, hadnâ€™t ordered her around like the other men in her life.
â€œThank you, Luke,â€ she murmured humbly. It wasnâ€™t often she received praise of that calibre regarding her cooking. Then again, the compliment may have been dictated by his good manners. Waving away the stray thought, she indicated the pot. â€œThereâ€™s more left over than I can eat. Would you care for seconds? Iâ€™d hate to see it go to waste.â€
â€œIâ€™d love another helping, Mrs Gaitland. Your cooking is the best Iâ€™ve had out this way.â€
She smiled cordially and ladled another helping into his bowl. â€œSo you arenâ€™t from around here?â€ she asked and slid to one end of a bench.
Luke claimed the empty bench space but hesitated with his answer. â€œNotâ€”originally.â€
When he didnâ€™t continue, she dismissed his non-reaction, unwilling to pursue the subject if he was disinclined.
They huddled close to the dying fire. She spooned the last bits of stew into her mouth from the pot while Luke ate from his bowl.
Beatrice glanced at him from the corner of her eye and found him watching her with a look of intrigue. She shrugged. â€œI know itâ€™s not very ladylike of me, but I donâ€™t usually bring my eating implements.â€
A full smile blossomed across his face at her comment. He set down his bowl, and began to chuckle.
She paused with a spoonful of broth halfway to her mouth. â€œWhat?â€
Luke reached into his waistcoat pocket and produced a handkerchief. He crooked his finger at her as he snapped open the folded, pristine cotton square. â€œItâ€™s not the eating implements which make up your plight.â€
She put her spoon down and looked at him, not quite sure what he wanted of her. Then he reached out and wiped the corner of her mouth.
â€œItâ€™s your deplorable manners,â€ he murmured drily.
Uninhibited laughter burst forth from her. â€œGood heavens, Luke. I thought you were being serious.â€
He grinned. â€œOh, Iâ€™m rarely that.â€ He took her chin in his other hand to steady her face and his smile faded away. â€œYouâ€™ll know for sure when I am.â€
At once his look became intense, as if to show her the difference. Returning his stare as he held her thus, she felt the napkin fall away, but his hand remained.
His gaze dropped to her mouth.
Her heart began to pound.
A soft pressure on her lower lip as his finger traced a line across it caused her entire body to heat, suggesting that, at any moment, she could burst into flames.
â€œIs it gone?â€ Exactly how sheâ€™d managed to form the query escaped her.
â€œIs what gone?â€ he asked above a whisper, as if heâ€™d suddenly entered the conversation.
She swallowed. â€œThe mess you dabbed from my face.â€
A nearly undetectable nod served as his answer.
â€œThen perhaps you should release me.â€ Even to her own ears, her suggestion bore an audible resemblance to a question.
Lukeâ€™s expression shifted from scorching to composed. â€œOf course.â€
At some point during their private exchange her appetite had fled. â€œI need to clean this up.â€ She made to stand, but Luke rose before she could.
â€œAllow me,â€ he offered. He took the cauldron handle in one hand and his bowl in the other, and headed towards the creek.
She could only stare after him, not knowing what to think of the situation. Lord, sheâ€™d known him for no more than three hours and would be happy to have his company on a cold night.
Where in the world had that thought come from? She stood abruptly and took a step to the right, then reversed directions and took two to the left.
Most likely from the fact that he nearly kissed you just now, a voice in the back of her mind answered.
In all her adult life sheâ€™d never been one to swoon or faint over a handsome face, and she wasnâ€™t about to let him bewilder her in such a way now. Squaring her shoulders, she marched into the tent, realigned the benches, doused the lamps, and tied the flaps down, chastising herself along the way. By the time she finished, Luke had returned with a clean cauldron.
â€œThank you for the assistance tonight, Luke,â€ she offered while dusting off her hands.
He set the tripod and cauldron into the wheelbarrow. â€œGlad to be of service, maâ€™am. However, I have one more thing to do.â€
Her heart quickened its pace. â€œAnd that is?â€
He looked down at his boots for a moment then back up to her face from underneath the brim of his hat. â€œWalk you home.â€
He was utterly adorable when he acted shyly. There must be a dozen sides to this young man.
â€œYour accompaniment would suit me just fine, Luke,â€ she said, unable to hold back her smile.
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