Thursday, December 23, 2010

Annie hoarded her pay, pinching every penny, working her way home. Now she was almost there. One more leg to this centipede of a journey.

She climbed the steps of the stage. The familiar blackness that plagued her circled in. It always passed, but, until it did, the world swam around. She groped for the door frame and it wasn’t where it should be. Just when the darkness was deepest, the paper thin souls of her worn-out, toe pinching boots slipped. She fell backward with a little squeal of alarm.

She made a soft landing in someone’s strong arms.

“Excuse me. I’m so...” Her effort at good manners was ignored as she felt herself set upright. Then she was more or less tossed into the stagecoach.

Whoever was manhandling her climbed in behind her, steadying her at the same time he urged her forward. “Move across, Miss. There’re four of us riding.”

Annette’s head cleared and she found herself sprawled along one side of the stage. Weakly, she said, “I’m sorry.” She wrestled with her skirts and heard something rip. Her last good dress.

“Oh, no.” She made herself small in the corner of the seat and scrambled to inspect the damage. She tried not to let it upset her. She would repair it. This was nothing to get upset about.

She fingered the rend with shaking hands. It crossed the entire front of her skirt at knee level and drooped open to show her muslin petticoat. Fumbling to cover herself, it all caught up with her.

She broke down and cried.

“Oh, please,” an exasperated voice rumbled in her ear.

The voice tugged on something deep inside her. She used the strength of that voice to get ahold of herself. She knew it was the man who had caught her, because he’d never stopped touching her since she fell.

“Miss, don’t cry now. It’s not that bad.”

Another voice. Annie glanced across from her. A young man in an ill-fitting business suit, wearing thick round spectacles, smiled as he settled himself into his seat. He offered her a handkerchief.

Brokenly she whispered, “Thank you.” She didn’t take his hankie. She pulled her own out of her sleeve.

Dabbing her eyes, she noticed another man sitting beside the businessman. He was a cowboy with a heavy brown mustache that covered his mouth and hung down on the corners to his chin. His eyes were shaded by the brim of his white, trail-stained Stetson. He had the hard look of the west on him, which the businessman didn’t.

The cowboy touched the brim of his Stetson. “Miss.”

He didn’t smile. Something flickered in his eyes, something intense, almost fixating. She had to force herself to look away from him. When she did, she accidentally looked at the man beside her.

This time she couldn’t force herself to look away.

“So you tore your skirt. Better head back east where folks care about such things.” His voice was deep and smooth with a trace of roughness, like water rippling over stones.

The businessman gasped and she glanced at him. She could tell he wanted to speak in her defense, but he looked fearfully at the man beside her and held his tongue. A wise man perhaps but a coward none the less.

She looked back at the man beside her, and, for just a second, she was the untamed girl she’d been when she’d run wild on her father’s ranch. “What I remember about the west,” she said, “is that men spoke politely to women, or they didn’t speak at all.”

The businessman clasped his hands together in front of him. It might have been panic, but Annie got the impression the poor man was praying—probably to be miraculously transported somewhere far away before the shooting started.

But oddly, Annie wasn’t afraid. She’d taken the measure of the man beside her and knew she was safe, except maybe from his rude mouth. She caught herself holding back a smile and that’s the first she realized she wasn’t crying anymore.

“Better now?” Sparks of humor flashed in eyes as blue as the Montana sky.

“You did it on purpose.”

“Can’t stand tears, Miss. Had to step in.”

This time Annie couldn’t stop herself from smiling.

He wasn’t dressed like a cowboy, but everything except for the clothes, told her he was one. His skin was weathered from sunlight in the summer and windburn in the winter. His crisp, flat topped black hat and vested suit seemed like a costume, although he looked comfortable in them. He had eyes as blue as the Wyoming sky. He’d removed his hat and his hair was too long, as if finding time to cut it was just one thing too many. It was light brown and the ends were burned to blonde from hours in the sun.

“Wise of you.” She folded her hands in her lap and did her best to behave like the prim maiden the St. Louis boarding school had tried to convert her into. “I’m afraid I’m exhausted. I’ve been traveling a long time and, between facing this last, long stagecoach ride, falling on the step, and tearing a gaping hole in the last good skirt I own, I lost my composure. If you hadn’t been handy to insult me who knows how long I’d have spent embarrassing you?”

The man studied her with narrowed eyes.

She couldn’t imagine what a mess she must be. And she feared her cheeks were hollow from hunger and her grey-blue eyes—so light Annie thought they were spooky—were even more startling with dark circles under them from lack of sleep. Altogether, she was sure she made a very unfortunate picture.

“A woman who’d cry over a skirt doesn’t belong in Ranger Bluff.” His expression relaxed. His expression relaxed. With a quirk of amusement, Annie wondered if the man would go so far as to challenge her to a shootout—as a technique for keeping her tears under control. “I doubt you’ll survive a week.”

“Really, sir," —Annie folded her hands in her lap and sassed him right back— "although it was most kind of you to insult me out of my tears, you can stop now. I’m drowning in your charity.”

The man smiled.

She had the impression his face wanted to crack from being bent in an unfamiliar direction. She found herself eagerly awaiting his next insult.
Mary is giving away a copy of her book Cowboy Christmas. Be sure to stop by The Borrowed Book on Friday for your chance to win!


  1. I love love all your books.


  2. Hi, Elizabeth. Thanks for having me on. It's a great time for giving. So why not my Christmas romance novel? :)

  3. Hi Mary,
    Hope you had a Merry Christmas!! Keep up the good work. Your books are great!!


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