Excerpt from The Maverick and Miss Prim
|Matt started up the slope to the top of the
ridge, then drew rein and scanned the road behind him. Yep, there she
was, rolling along as if she knew what she was doing. She hadn't protected
her face from the broiling sun as he had advised her, but at least she'd
made that tent-like cover so the children wouldn't fry. She was a sensible
woman at heart, even if she was from Boston.
He turned back to the trail leading up the mountain slope and shot a final glance back to the road. Aw, hell, she was going to burn those pretty cream-and-rose cheeks into a shriveled mask. Why should you care?
He didn't care, exactly. She was obviously a misfit out here in the West, but he did admire that she had an education and could teach school He urged Devil on up the rise, but he couldn't get Miss Blue out of his mind. Spunky woman, taking care of five kids without enough smarts to bring along a pocketknife. Maybe she was a mite crazy, as well. After a day in the direct sun, she'd have a walloping headache.
* * *
| The burning sun overhead was blinding. Ellie kept her eyes
narrowed against the merciless glare, feeling the parched skin of her
cheeks and her nose begin to sear. The back of her neck felt like one
of her mother's boiled lobsters and her hands - oh, Lord. The palms were
still white, but the backs were sunburned and painful. Perspiration gathered
between her breasts. In another hour she'd smell as sweaty as Mr. Johnson.
She clenched her fists tightly around the leather reins. She disliked that man! He bullied her just as Mama had. But at the moment, she'd give anything to see him again.
Squinting ahead, she saw something that sent her stomach hurtling straight to her toes. A line of brown dust streaked at an angle toward the road before her, drawing closer and closer to a point a mile or so away where the two paths would cross. Every bone in her body wanted to turn around and head in the opposite direction. She hauled on the reins.
Ellie shielded her eyes and waited. When the dust thinned out some, she caught her breath. A tall man on a black horse was moving toward her. Inside her sweat-damp shirtwaist her heart hammered against her rib cage. What now?
Matt positioned his horse dead center in the road and waited for Miss Blue to slow the wagon to a stop. Then he stepped Devil forward and tipped his hat. "Good morning, again, Miss Stevenson."
"Good morning." She sounded hot and tired and cross.
"Good thinking to rig up a quilt for a tent," he remarked casually. "None of the kids look sunburned."
"Thank you," she said stiffly. "God gave us brains. Surely one should use them."
Uh-oh. She was beginning to sound not only hot and tired but preachy, as well. "Should have used yours a bit more, miss. Your nose looks like a fire-grilled sausage."
"Oh!" Frowning, Ellie covered it with one hand. Heat rose under her fingers. Her skin! Her skin would be ruined. Mama would lecture . . . quite well.
No, she would not! Mama, mercifully, was in Boston. Instead she had Mr. Johnson shaking his finger at her.
"Climb down," he ordered.
He pressed his lips together. "You want to save your nose or not?"
She was off the bench in a flash, looking as though she was about to spit nails.
Matt dismounted. "Got any water?"
"Of course we have water," she snapped. "I saved all the tinned-food cans and filled them before we left camp."
Her hands - sunburned, he noted - again propped themselves on her shapely hips. "Yes, sir!" She saluted smartly, did a perfect military about-face and stomped to the wagonbed. "Teddy, give me your can of water, please."
The MacAllister boy grinned and handed over a peach can half-full of water. Miss Blue ignored the pop-eyed faces of her students and pivoted toward Matt.
"Water, she muttered.
Matt lifted the can out of her hands, walked three paces off the road, kicked together a small pile of dirt and dumped the water on it.
She sent him an outraged look. "Why did you do that? Water is precious!"
"Come over here."
She took a single step and stopped. "What for?"
Matt knelt to stir the slurry with his forefinger. "Full of questions, aren't you? Come on over here." He sounded more brusque than he intended, but she picked up her pace and in the next instant she stood beside him. A scent rose from her petticoats - soap and some kind of flowery smell. Bath powder? The thought of dusting anything over her naked body made him grow hard.
Dammit. Good thing he was kneeling.
"Bend down," he ordered. "And don't ask what for, just do it."
"Well!" she huffed. But she bent at the knees, dropped to the ground and settled back on her heels. "Now what?" Her tone was chilly, to say the least.
With one hand Matt grabbed the back of her neck and ducked her head toward him. With the other he slathered a handful of the mud he'd made across her forehead and cheeks.
She let out a screech. He'd known she'd do that, and before she could leap away he grabbed her hands and smeared more mud over the already sun-reddened backs and up one arm as far as her elbow.
"Should have kept your sleeves rolled down, Miss Stevenson."
"It was too hot! I also unbuttoned my - " She clamped her jaw shut.
Matt jerked his attention to the front of her blue shirtwaist. Sure enough, a line of undone buttons marched down her chest, revealing flushed bare skin all the way to where her breasts began to swell. Whoa, Nellie! If he had his druthers, he'd smear some of this mud all the way down to her nipples.
With an effort, he refocused on her hands, then moved his gaze to her mud-smeared face. She scrambled to a standing position, looking mad as a hornet.
Matt stood as well. Toe to toe, they stared at each other.
"Why are you ordering me around?" she spat at him. "I hate to be ordered around like a child."
"How come you're all fluffed up like a banty chicken? I'm trying to help you. Stop acting like an old-maid schoolteacher," he intoned. "I'm doing you a favor. The mud will protect your skin from the sun."
"I - It's just that I am a bit self-conscious with it smeared all over me."
"Well, don't be," he growled. "Besides, it's not smeared all over you." He chuckled low in his throat. "I did think about it, though."
I've always been fascinated by "odd couples," two people who seem entirely unalike, who get to know each other and then bond irrevocably. This speaks to my lifelong belief that (1) appearances matter less than soul-deep connections between people and (2) if the core of a person is known, respected, and then loved, it matters not how outwardly "different" they are.
I am drawn to the Smoke River, Oregon, setting for two reasons. First, because my mother was raised on a ranch in that area and, second, because a small town in the Old West holds hundreds of stories, intriguing characters, and potential plots. This story is part of my series of novels set in Smoke River. I love getting to know these people...