I’ve never been good at selecting excerpts, so forgive me if it’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, “Stone Soup Night.” She cooks fixin’s provided by the townsfolk. Luke and Beatrice don’t know it yet, but they’ve met before . . .

Touching the brim of his hat in what the West thought of as a proper greeting, he spoke to Beatrice.
“Hello, ma’am, miss.” He sent a polite glance Ginny’s way. “These chickens are from Bauer’s meat market, for the supper tonight.”
Taking a breath, she nodded. “Thank you, mister—”
“You can call me Luke.”
Perceiving his youth in comparison to her own age, Beatrice didn’t feel uncomfortable using his given name, even though he couldn’t have been too much younger than she. Moreover, she refused to include his striking good looks into the equation. “Luke. Thank you.” She turned to Ginny. “Take the chickens and—”
“Uh,” he interrupted, “I wouldn’t mind dressing the varmints for you.”
Beatrice grinned at the funny way he’d spoken of the meat. “All right, Luke, pluck away.”
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.
“Cousins and corsets, I ain’t never seen a finer lookin’ man.” Ginny beamed the moment Luke stepped out of hearing range.
Beatrice turned to her young companion. “If your mother were to hear you talk in such a manner—”
“She’d agree in a heartbeat! Did you see those straight, white teeth and that silky blond hair? Did I mention his wide shoulders?”
“He had an agreeable smile,” she offered as she sliced into a potato, staring unseeing at it, and keeping her face as still as a statue’s. Ginny’s accurate observations nearly caused girlish giggles to bubble up from her very depths, and if Beatrice gave in she’d be obliged to confess her own reflections when asked—and there wasn’t the slightest doubt that Ginny would ask.
“His smile wasn’t the only thing agreeable, Mrs Gaitland. You watched him walk away, same as I did.”
This time, a squawk of laughter almost escaped her. “That will be enough, dear. Ladies don’t say things like that aloud. It would behove you to remember such,” she said in a maternal tone, although the grand cathedral bells were not quite finished ringing in her head from the encounter.
“Yer right. I should’a just mentioned his beautiful mouth and be done with it.”
“What? It was. Why, kissin’ him would be—”
Beatrice actually choked before she found her voice. “Good heavens, Ginny! Where did you learn of such things?”
“Well, I was over behind the Bird Cage one day, and—”
To be honest, Beatrice didn’t want to hear her answer. “Just never mind.”
“Now, Mrs Gaitland, a gal could come by some valuable particulars listenin’ to the whores talk about—”
“That will be all on the subject, dear.”
“But yer always sayin’ how important an education is and those women really know a thing or two—”
“A lady doesn’t speak about… Oh, go on into the tent now, and set the benches.”
Although slightly perturbed—the emotion revealed by the sour look on her face—Ginny did as she was told.
Beatrice lowered her gaze to the ground. “Children these days.” She shook her head.
Had he really attended last week, and she hadn’t noticed him then? The thought seemed impossible to her. But, for heaven’s sake—she shook herself mentally—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.
“I wondered where you’d got off to.” She peered into the bowl and found she barely recognised its contents. “What have you done to the chicken?” She looked up at him for his answer.
Luke shrugged. “I went ahead and took out the bones and other undesirables.”
“Oh,” she said, and glanced into the bowl once again. “How kind of you.” 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, “Have we met before?”
Beatrice couldn’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, “No, sir. I have not seen you around these parts, and I’ve been living here for some time now.” 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. “Over here, Mrs Gaitland.”
“Ginny, I need you to come out and stir the stew.” She’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. “Go on, I will finish up in here.”
Ginny nodded knowingly. “He’s back, then.”
“You know who, Luke.”
The young girl’s voice dipped towards the seductive, but Beatrice ignored it. “Yes, the meat is cooking now.”
Ginny walked over to where Beatrice stood. “Last Sunday, it seemed he always had his eye on you—at every moment he knew where you were, what you were doin’. I tried to point it out to you then, but you’d been so occupied with the stew…”
“Nonsense, Ginny. You have an overactive imagination, that’s all. Now go on and give the cauldron a stir or two.”
Ginny harrumphed, a very grown-up sound to Beatrice’s ears. As Ginny took her leave, she felt the girl’s gaze upon her back, but didn’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 miners—the ones that hadn’t found their fortune yet—who plucked at Beatrice’s heart strings. These men didn’t loaf about, expecting to be taken care of, but hard-working ones, toiling daily to carve out a living.
She’d never considered herself an overly religious person, not even after she’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.
“Smells good, Mrs Gaitland.”
“Can hardly wait, ma’am.”
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. “All right, gentlemen, chow’s on,” 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. Wasn’t it?
“There was no need for you to wait, Luke. You did participate in the preparations, you know.”
He shrugged a shoulder and held out his bowl, smiling. “I’m not in any hurry. Besides, I like to watch you.” He’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. “Well, next time you get to be the first. I insist.” 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 she’d finished up, Beatrice shooed her on home. “See you next week, Ginny?”
Ginny waved in acknowledgement and departed down the path.
“How did your Stone Soup Hour turn out tonight? You had a hearty attendance, I trust?” Allen asked as he approached the fire from beyond its light.
Beatrice smiled. “We had a nice-sized crowd. Care for some? It’s chicken and vegetables this time around.”
“No, I’ll wait until you cook me my very own supper tonight.”
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. “Allen,” she began softly, “my Sunday night supper usually consists of what’s left over from the pot.” She indicated the cauldron.
Allen’s eyebrows rose as if he was on the verge of pointing out her insolence, but, at the last possible moment, he relaxed. “I see. Well, I’ll just go on over to the hotel then.” 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 heaven’s sake, she wasn’t his wife.
“The man doesn’t know what he’s missing,” a warm voice murmured.
She looked up to see Luke, exactly who she’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, hadn’t ordered her around like the other men in her life.
“Thank you, Luke,” she murmured humbly. It wasn’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. “There’s more left over than I can eat. Would you care for seconds? I’d hate to see it go to waste.”
“I’d love another helping, Mrs Gaitland. Your cooking is the best I’ve had out this way.”
She smiled cordially and ladled another helping into his bowl. “So you aren’t from around here?” she asked and slid to one end of a bench.
Luke claimed the empty bench space but hesitated with his answer. “Not—originally.”
When he didn’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. “I know it’s not very ladylike of me, but I don’t usually bring my eating implements.”
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. “What?”
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. “It’s not the eating implements which make up your plight.”
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.
“It’s your deplorable manners,” he murmured drily.
Uninhibited laughter burst forth from her. “Good heavens, Luke. I thought you were being serious.”
He grinned. “Oh, I’m rarely that.” He took her chin in his other hand to steady her face and his smile faded away. “You’ll know for sure when I am.”
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.
“Is it gone?” Exactly how she’d managed to form the query escaped her.
“Is what gone?” he asked above a whisper, as if he’d suddenly entered the conversation.
She swallowed. “The mess you dabbed from my face.”
A nearly undetectable nod served as his answer.
“Then perhaps you should release me.” Even to her own ears, her suggestion bore an audible resemblance to a question.
Luke’s expression shifted from scorching to composed. “Of course.”
At some point during their private exchange her appetite had fled. “I need to clean this up.” She made to stand, but Luke rose before she could.
“Allow me,” 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, she’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 she’d never been one to swoon or faint over a handsome face, and she wasn’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.
“Thank you for the assistance tonight, Luke,” she offered while dusting off her hands.
He set the tripod and cauldron into the wheelbarrow. “Glad to be of service, ma’am. However, I have one more thing to do.”
Her heart quickened its pace. “And that is?”
He looked down at his boots for a moment then back up to her face from underneath the brim of his hat. “Walk you home.”
He was utterly adorable when he acted shyly. There must be a dozen sides to this young man.
“Your accompaniment would suit me just fine, Luke,” she said, unable to hold back her smile.

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