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Love in the Balance


Prairie Lea, Texas
October 1879

The pew creaked as another sinner rose to unburden her troubled soul. Molly Lovelace twisted around on the slick wooden bench, bunching her tiered silk skirt against her mother’s, and watched as Louise Bradford stood. Bother. As if she had anything interesting to confess.

“After all God has done for me, I still can’t live in holiness. This week I harbored thoughts of impatience toward my husband.”

Molly cringed. Surely Mrs. Bradford’s worst thoughts would bleach Molly’s laundry clean.

Molly’s transgressions, on the other hand . . .

Leaning forward to see around her father, Molly caught Bailey watching her intently. Her pulse quickened. With all the people trying to make decisions for her, she couldn’t afford a misstep, but she hadn’t expected to lose her heart so completely. What did Bailey Garner have to offer? Nothing, by her father’s reckoning. If only his pockets were filled out as nicely as his homespun shirt.

Molly’s sigh earned a stern glare from her mother. She bowed her head, hoping to appear sorrowed over Mrs. Bradford’s tedious list of near sins. How long would the woman ramble on? Bailey was waiting.

Every Sunday for the past year Bailey had escorted Molly to Lockhart, where she boarded for her job at the courthouse, but somehow on the twelve lonely miles between the Texas towns of Prairie Lea and Lockhart, Bailey’s skills as a surrey driver diminished. For a cowboy, he let the horse wander off the road with surprising frequency, often failing to get the beast under control until it reached a sheltered grove out of view from the road.

That spot held a special place in Molly’s heart. The bitter­sweet kisses shared between the thwarted lovers fueled her imagination, but until Bailey could keep dumplings on her table and silk stockings over her toes, she had to refuse his proposal. Her parents expected more.

But no one had ever delivered so reluctant a rejection. She braved a smile in his direction, noting his clean-shaven jaw and anticipating the smell of his shaving soap. Her father thought she was weak because she’d allowed an earnest young dreamer to disrupt his ambitions for her, when actually she’d never done anything braver than championing Bailey. Bailey was a good man who’d never had an opportunity to thrive, and Molly understood a thing or two about limited opportunities.

Mrs. Bradford’s recital concluded.

From the raised platform, Reverend Stoker closed his Bible. “Thank you, Mrs. Bradford. We’ll faithfully pray for you this week, won’t we, church?”

Grunts and a few drowsy amens echoed over the heads of women itching to get their food on the tables before it cooled in the mild October weather.

“Then if there are no further—”

“I have something to say.”

Molly’s teeth rattled, she shut her mouth so hard. She turned quickly, her blond curls swinging straight out.

Not Bailey, Lord. Please, not Bailey.

He pulled himself up by the back of the pew and studied the floor. “Y’all need to pray for me. I’ve got a burden that’s wearing me slick.”

His silhouette blocked the sunlight streaming through the open window and stretched his shadow across rows of shocked parishioners. His eyes wandered in Molly’s direction, held her gaze for an agonizing moment, and then turned toward the stained-glass cross in the window behind the pulpit. “God’s convicting me, but I keep falling into the same pit. I’m still snared.”

Molly’s bonnet quivered. This wasn’t part of their plan. She opened her mouth to protest, but her mother elbowed her sharply in the ribs. Holding her side, she looked again to Bailey. He’d never done this before. Only the elders spoke, and when they did, their stories were as bland as buttermilk. Terrified, Molly realized that Bailey’s confession could be quite salty indeed.

He straightened his shoulders and shuffled his feet. “Anyway, guess y’all need to hold me accountable. God has something planned for me, but until I’m free of this . . . temptation . . . I can’t move on to see what that is.”

Freed from her? How could he say such a thing in front of all these people? In front of her parents? Molly’s face went hot and her hands went cold. He couldn’t mean it.

“I ain’t blaming no one but myself, but if I’m serious about following God, I need to get my priorities straight, so pray for me. I can’t do it on my own.”

He plopped down next to his mother. Mary Garner’s face shone scarlet. His father reached around to pat him on the back before turning forward. Everyone turned forward, but they didn’t look at Reverend Stoker. They glared at Molly.

Had her parents been right? Was her relationship with Bailey a mistake? Well, she’d had enough. She wouldn’t be tossed aside like last season’s gowns. Her broken heart could wait as long as there was a comeuppance to be delivered. Tearing free of her mother’s grasp, Molly popped to her feet.

“Reverend Stoker, I have a confession to make, as well.” Her voice sounded as clear as a fork tapped against a crystal goblet. She shook her skirts out the best she could within the narrow row.

“Like all of us since Eve, I’ve made some mistakes.” She wouldn’t look in Bailey’s direction. She would not. Instead, she looked at the parson and wished she hadn’t. The horror on his face almost stopped her. Almost. “And like Eve, I was tempted, but I thought the fruit the serpent offered was healthy and wholesome. I didn’t realize the snake offered me diseased fruit that wasn’t nourishing. Rotten fruit from a tree that was unproductive and fallow. A tree that couldn’t provide for a family or make a decent income—”

Bailey leapt to his feet, hands held out in appeal. “I told you I’m looking for a job. I’m moving to town next month.”

Mr. Lovelace shot up. “Sit down,” he bellowed at his daughter, but Molly could still see Bailey over her father’s shoulders, if she hopped.

“Your employment, or lack of, is no longer my concern. How dare you impugn my character. You’re upset because I won’t—” Her father finally wrestled her to her seat.

“I didn’t say anything about your character. No one would know I was talking about you if you’d kept your trap shut.”

Reverend Stoker’s throat clearing trumpeted with an authority that words couldn’t merit. “That will be enough.” His chest heaved in indignation. “This congregation would do well to remember that anyone may come to me for guidance anytime. Some issues are best discussed privately!” He ran his finger under his string tie. “However, we certainly will not forget to pray for you.”

A strident amen rang out from the rear of the building, followed by snickers. Molly stared straight ahead, the stained-glass window blurring through her unshed tears. Her heart pounded, causing the lace ruff at her neckline to tremble. Did he mean to hurt her? She bit her lip. Bailey? The one person she thought she could trust?

Her parents stood with the rest of the congregation, and she had no choice but to follow as they pulled her up with them. She submitted, joined their hands, and followed the prescribed procedure to reach the end of the service.

How could she go outside for the potluck and pretend everything was fine? Impossible. She’d hoped against hope she could stall her father’s plans long enough for Bailey to make his fortune. Never had she considered the possibility that Bailey might give up before she did.

Without him, her struggle was over. She’d fought for the freedom to make her own decisions, but without Bailey would she have the courage to continue?

The benediction ended and Molly dropped onto the wooden bench.

“Mr. Lovelace?” Russell James gripped the end of the pew in both hands as if it were a shield. He’d been her father’s bookkeeper her whole life and was still naïve enough to believe it was his good fortune. “If I may be of assistance . . . Please don’t worry about what people say. Their opinions are fickle at best.”

Molly’s father glared at him. “You should look after your own family, Russell, before you attempt to guide mine.”

“Yes, sir,” he stammered. “Please don’t take offense. I was trying to help. I didn’t mean to compare your daughter to Michael.”

“I’m getting the surrey,” her father said. “If you’ll excuse me—”

“We aren’t staying for dinner?” her mother asked. “I had Lola make extra. . . .” His look of annoyance silenced her. “Well, I’m not staying in here.” She rose to follow her husband out the door, Russell James trailing with a caboose of apologies.

Molly’s thoughts whirled. What must everyone think of her? The picnic tables would hum with the story all afternoon. She winced at the laughter floating through the open window and wondered if it was at her expense.

The room grew quieter and quieter until Molly knew everyone had gone, everyone except the man sitting in the section to her left, fourth row from the front.

“And you think I’m going to let you escort me to Lockhart after that?” She kept her eyes on the pulpit.

“No, I don’t. That’s the point.”

She heard Bailey take a deep breath.

“And even if you would, your father wouldn’t. At least that’s what I’m counting on.”

She turned weary eyes to him, surprised to see concern etched on his face. If he wasn’t mad at her, why’d he go and do that? She’d fought for him, defended him, and now he was abandoning her. Her arms still twitched with the longing to knock his head off of his broad shoulders. Without that baby face he wouldn’t get far.

Bailey picked up a paper fan from the back of the pew and slapped it against his hand as he made his way to her. “I know you’re mad, but this is best. I want to make you and your family proud, and it’s gonna take some work before I’m good enough for you.”

“That’s what I don’t understand. Why jilt me now that you’re free to leave the ranch and make a name for yourself?”

“Because I want to do this right,” he said. “I’m starting something new, and I don’t want to mess it up. God can’t bless my efforts when we’re carrying on like we do.”

Molly stood. “Then move to Lockhart. Get a job. You could’ve done that without calling me down in church.”

“I didn’t mention you, but it’s just as well that you jumped in. I need some accountability, because no private decision is strong enough to keep us apart. We act like we’re fixing to get hitched, and we both know it’s going to be a spell before that’s possible.” His eyelashes, so thick Molly coveted them, lowered as he rotated the paper fan in his hands. “I think of you in ways a man shouldn’t think of a woman unless she’s his wife. You’ve got to give me some room.”

Her toes curled. How could he want her so badly, yet be willing to give her up? Inhaling all that trail dust had addled his brain.

“The scales have never been in your favor, Bailey. I thought Father might relent if the business at the sawmill picks up, but how can I plead your case now? You’ve thrown the balance completely askew.”

“Wait for me, Molly. I finally have my pa’s blessing. He’s even helping me find a position in Lockhart. As soon as I’m settled, I’ll come calling, but I can’t court you now. I can’t keep stepping out with you until we’re ready to wed. Will you wait?”

With an explanation to her parents looming, Molly wasn’t in the mood to make promises to the man who’d humiliated her, no matter how regretful he might sound. “After this disgrace my parents will marry me off to the first gassy old man who wanders into our parlor. And maybe it’s for the best. Maybe I’d be happier with someone steady.” Molly tugged at the bottom of her bodice firmly enough that the stitches popped. Here she was, lying in church. Well, she might as well make it a whopper.

“Why would I want to marry a cowboy anyway? Stinking boots, barn manners, and rough . . .” She looked at his hands and couldn’t bring herself to disparage them in any fashion. Not when she wanted nothing more than to feel them holding her close. “By year’s end, my father will be marching me down an aisle, and it won’t matter who’s waiting at the altar as long as the arrangement benefits him.”

“Then every kiss I take is stolen from another man’s wife.” He dropped the fan into the slot in the back of the pew before gracing her with a sly smile. “But you won’t be bullied into marrying some old goat. Remember when you stood down those townies pestering my puppy? You were quite the little spitfire.”

She remembered. Every childhood memory of hers included Bailey. He was like the comfortable old wing chair in her room—always there when she wanted him but not essential. Then last year her clumsy attempts to win his cousin Weston had changed their relationship and revealed that Bailey was who she really needed. In the year they’d been courting, he’d gone from a diversion to her mainstay, her future. She couldn’t imagine going on without him, even if it was temporary.

Molly hadn’t realized how close he was leaning until he straightened suddenly. She turned and caught Reverend Stoker peering in the window. He jerked his chin toward the door, and they both understood.

“More time, Molly. That’s all I’m asking. I want to do right by you.” His dark eyes traveled to her lips. “It’ll be worth the wait. I promise.” And he left her alone before the empty altar.

Molly twisted a blond curl to her mouth and chewed as his footsteps echoed against whitewashed walls. If her parents would allow it, she would walk outside and say yes, and Reverend Stoker would see them wed before the pecan pies were broken out. The vision lingered a second longer than she’d expected, but her wistfulness was replaced once again by frustration.

She lifted her chin and straightened her bonnet. Even if it meant locking herself in her wardrobe, she wouldn’t moon after him. How could she? He’d humiliated her in front of half the town. Prairie Lea gossip would be Lockhart news by Monday. No. He’d have to come to her—and not with empty pockets this time.

She’d been willing to accept a poor man despite her parents’ dire warnings. She’d begun to imagine a life without the luxuries necessary for a lady. She’d grown less concerned with the latest fashions and coiffures. She’d even ventured out once on a promenade in mismatched gloves.

Molly shuddered. After waiting a year for him to be released from his familial duties, she’d known that she’d have to wait a little longer for him to get established—but not that she’d be waiting alone.

Waiting and bracing for a bombardment of parentally approved suitors.

Reckless man! Even if she did manage to resist her parents, how did Bailey expect her to carry on without him? How long before she stopped looking for him over every crowd in town, wondering if he’d managed to sneak away from the ranch to visit?

Only Molly’s insistence and her parents’ long-standing friendship with the Garners had prevented them from banishing Bailey outright, but now she’d be gussied up and sold to the highest bidder.

Did he have any idea what he had done?

“I have half a mind to make him marry you. It’d serve him right,” said Thomas Lovelace.

Molly watched the stripes on her father’s shirt expand and contract with every labored breath from her seat in the back of the surrey. This wasn’t how she’d imagined her ride back to Lockhart. Usually the journey had more to recommend it—like a handsome, cheerful driver, for instance.

The grassland between Prairie Lea and Lockhart offered little to distract her parents from their tirade. They had no interest in the longhorns eyeing their trek across the barren winter fields or the jackrabbit bounding over the knots of dried grass. Rebuking their daughter would be their sole diversion for five miles yet.

“Thank goodness the boy’s got more sense than I gave him credit for. You’d make a poor man miserable,” her father said.

“It was this surrey, wasn’t it?” Adele Lovelace’s gloved hand caressed the leather bench. “Do you know how long I pleaded before your father would purchase it for me?”

Molly grasped the support from the second-row bench and thrust herself forward between her parents’ shoulders. “Your surrey remains untainted, Mother. Of all the things to worry about after I’ve been humiliated before the whole world. We didn’t do anything, or not much. Bailey’s just upset I won’t marry him.”

“After all the music lessons and deportment classes, how could he imagine you’d squander your prospects on him?” Mrs. Lovelace shook her head and clucked softly. “I’m glad your brother isn’t here to see your shame.”

But Nicholas would hear about it, no doubt. Although his new business supplying lumber to the railroad kept him away from home, his partnership with his father’s mill ensured frequent visits and correspondence. Which busybody’s letter would reach him first?

The horse slowed its pace as if waiting for redirection. Molly looked up. The pecan grove. She kicked her boot against the bottom of the front bench, startling the horse and earning a suspicious glare from her father as he struggled to keep the horse from wandering toward the copse of trees.

“So now that Bailey Garner has removed himself from your consideration, are you prepared to entertain more appropriate options?” her mother asked.

Molly didn’t make a peep. Her head churned with possible candidates and how to avoid them. What would it take to outwit her parents? How could she keep her freedom without an outright rebellion?

“It was our mistake pushing you toward Weston when he obviously wasn’t interested,” her mother said, “and now we need to make up for lost time. You aren’t getting any younger.”

Molly adjusted her bonnet as a precaution against freckles.

“Remember,” her father continued, “your stay in Lockhart is dependent on your finding a husband. If you aren’t becoming acquainted with the right sort of gentlemen, you might as well come home. No sense spending all that money on gowns if no one appreciates them. Besides, unless the sawmill does better, there won’t be any money for gowns.”

Molly’s ears perked at the welcomed topic change. She scooted to the edge of her bench. “What’s causing the mill to be unprofitable? Prairie Lea is rebuilding from the fire. Nicholas is sending railroad contracts our way. Lumber prices are stronger than ever.”

“Just because you have a little job in the courthouse doesn’t mean you understand enterprise.” Thomas squared his shoulders.

“You mustn’t allow your position to fill your heart with self-importance. It’s unbecoming in a lady,” her mother said.

“I merely asked a question based on solid information. I fail to see what role pride plays in this.”

“You fail to see what a drought can do,” her father huffed. “If the river wasn’t low, we could float the logs to the mill. As it is, I’m feeding mule teams and paying drivers to bring in the raw material. Nicholas’s railroad contract is locked in, so we’re operating at a loss.”

For all of Molly’s life her father had claimed they were losing money. Made her wonder how rich he’d been in the beginning.

“If you want to help your father,” her mother said, “go back to Lockhart and find a man with income.”

“And connections.” Thomas said. “Someone with capital who’s interested in investing.”

“And, of course, a society leader. We aren’t completely merciless, Molly. There’d be something in it for you.”

Molly frowned. This was no spontaneous discussion.

“Who is it?” She crossed her arms and settled in for a fight. “If you’re going to stick a hook in me and throw me in the creek, I’d like to know for whom we’re fishing.”

Her father pressed his substantial weight back into the surrey seat, causing it to bump into Molly’s knees. “The banker in Lockhart has a son.”

“Mr. Fenton!” Molly covered her eyes. “Mr. Fenton is courting Prue McGraw.”

“The blacksmith’s daughter?” Adele tsked. “That’s precisely the problem. His parents do not view the match favorably.”

“You talked to them? No, I can’t come between Fenton and Prue. She’s my friend, the court reporter of whom I’ve spoken. She’s been teaching me shorthand so I can take her job when she gets married.”

Her father chuckled. “Don’t let her fool you. The salary for the court reporter is chicken feed compared to your allowance as Mr. Fenton’s wife.”

Allowance? Molly clenched her reticule tightly. No other word could ruffle her feathers so. Every week she brought home her wages from the courthouse and handed them over to her father. Every week she returned to Lockhart with an allowance from him because he allowed her to keep a portion of her own money.

She suddenly filled her chest with a long draw of crisp October air. Would being a wife provide her with any freedom? She studied her mother’s tightly wound coif in front of her. Probably not, but what other choice did she have? Anything was preferable to being treated like a child. A girl child, especially.

Stealing Mr. Fenton from Prue was out of the question. Molly wouldn’t betray her friend. Besides, Mr. Fenton’s devotion to Prue McGraw couldn’t be shaken. He, at least, was safe from her parents’ schemes, but whom would they settle on next?

Molly clasped her hands together. Would Fenton willingly stand in as a decoy? She needn’t worry about losing her heart to him, and he definitely had no interest in her. Perhaps an understanding could be reached with the banker’s son that would pacify her parents and give Bailey time to get established.

Would Mr. Fenton play along . . . and would Prue understand?



Lockhart, Texas
November 1879

To Do List:

Write Mother a scintillating account of dinner with Mr. Fenton.

Buy new tortoiseshell combs.

Learn when Bailey is moving to town.

Living in the cultural center of Caldwell County agreed with Molly. Ever since Mr. Myers led that first herd of cattle up what they now called the Chisholm Trail, cowboys and cattlemen had flooded the city. Businesses prospered and the streets bustled. Although the cowhands could get rowdy in certain areas of town, the ladies of Lockhart were moving it toward gentility and sophistication, and Molly wanted to be in on every step. To her mind, the only advantage that quiet little Prairie Lea held was a certain man who’d promised to relocate any day now.

Yet he hadn’t appeared.

Mr. Fenton entered the dining room and scowled as the waiter pointed in her direction. Molly had put off this rendezvous as long as she could, hoping that Bailey would renew his suit, but it’d been three weeks, and she hadn’t heard a word from him. She closed her journal and hid it in her reticule as the banker’s son stalked toward her, taking long strides with short legs. Mr. Fenton barely halted before he collided with her round table.

“I suppose I must make an attempt at civility. If it weren’t for my disdain for ungentlemanly behavior, this situation could certainly provoke me toward churlishness.” He made a big show of looking around the hotel’s dining room, rotating his shoulders as if his chin were fused to his chest. “Fortunately, the presence of witnesses bolsters my restraint.”

Molly leaned her elbows on the table. “Please, Mr. Fenton, be seated. There’ll be enough said about us dining together as it is. We gain nothing by feigning misery.”

“You may feign. My pain is real.” But he pulled out the chair and sat, doing his best to avoid her gaze. “The lengths to which we submit to pacify our families . . .”

Molly’s eyes widened at the insult. My, what a tantrum he could throw. How dare he act condescending. He was courting the blacksmith’s daughter, for crying aloud.

She fought the desire to retaliate. Less than a month had passed since her last public dispute with a man. She’d have to use a different approach.

“If it weren’t for my parents, I wouldn’t be here, and I assume you are in a similar situation. If you want to revolt, you have my blessing, but please spare me your unpleasantness. I am not your enemy.”

Molly had spoken as sweetly as possible, and still his wide eyebrows rose. “I wondered why, despite your well-favored appearance, your parents felt they needed to sweeten the deal with part ownership in the mill. Now I understand. No doubt your sharp tongue has chased off several offers.” He studied her as he waved the waiter over. “Miss McGraw would never accuse me of being unpleasant.”

Molly smiled at the waiter, taking a moment to bask in the appreciation reflected in the man’s eyes, but was she only attractive to poor men? Well, she’d promised her parents she’d give Fenton a chance. They couldn’t fault her if the results didn’t satisfy. Besides, knowing she had a suitor might build a fire under Bailey. It’d been weeks and she had no news of his progress.

“Prue is an angel, on that we can agree. And you’ve probably never had a reason to be unpleasant with her.”

“True. She is the most gentle, most sincere woman I’ve ever met. It pains me to think of what this is doing to her.” His jaw grew so tight that his ears moved.

“I’ve tried to explain to Prue, Mr. Fenton. I’ve promised her I’m not attempting to steal your affections and that you definitely have no interest in me, but she doesn’t understand the pressures visited upon us.” Molly slid her napkin off the table and spread it in her lap as the memory of Prue’s tear-streaked face appeared before her. “Surely if we both reassure her, we’ll make it through this trial without further damage. Then we can honestly tell our families that we became acquainted and have no interest in furthering the relationship.”

“And hopefully such a declaration can be made before our association becomes noticed—”

“Mr. Fenton, I’d hoped to find you about today.” Judge Rice’s periwinkle eyes peered from a weather-lined face. Like a courtly gentleman, he bowed slightly to Molly before continuing. “It’s come to my attention that my young stenographer is suffering from some form of distress, and I thought you might be able to enlighten me.”

“She is?” Fenton sprang to his feet. “Where is she?”

“No, son, not of that nature.” With a hand on the shoulder he guided Fenton back to his seat. “She’s moping about, sighing as ladies are wont to do when grieved.” His keen eyes rested on Molly. “I’m sure you understand, Miss Lovelace. Perhaps you would have insight as to what ails her.”

Molly kept her chin lifted. Of course she knew, and so did the judge. “Perhaps her father is interfering with matters of the heart. That seems to be a frequent culprit these days.”

“Mr. McGraw? I think not, but I hope that we, her friends, can ease her discomfort.” He rapped his knuckles against the table with the same hand that usually held the gavel. “I won’t keep you from your meal or your . . . uh, conversation . . . but I offer that food for thought should you be able to relieve her distress. Good day.”

They both sat, chastened, until the keen gentleman left the room.

“Insufferable,” muttered Mr. Fenton. “I’ll admit you are a victim of the same parental ailment that plagues me, but how can we proceed?”

Molly’s mouth lifted on one side. She needed to be alert to walk this tightrope, and holding grudges exhausted her. “We will proceed together, Mr. Fenton. That might be the quickest way to get apart.”

Bailey Garner sat high in his saddle, enjoying the prestige of riding through Lockhart at his cousin’s side. Tipped hats, deferential nods—people respected Weston Garner, and Bailey hoped someday to be as highly regarded as his eldest cousin, former employer, and mentor. No wonder Molly’s parents had hoped Weston would favor their daughter. He’d been surprised that Weston had shown no interest in Molly, but maybe she’d been too young for the old man. Downright crotchety at times, he was. Still, Bailey was glad when his aunt Louise returned from Mexico with that beautiful widow, Rosa. The Lovelaces never would’ve allowed Molly to step out with him until Weston was spoken for. Now with a wife and a newborn son, Weston was well settled—another reason Bailey envied him.

The Lovelaces, as well of most of Caldwell County, held the Garner family in high regard. Coming from South Carolina before the war, the Garner boys had claimed a large spread that grew every year. His cousin Weston, old enough to merit the title “Uncle” from Bailey’s little sisters, had prospered on his ranch, Palmetto. Weston’s sister, Eliza, and her husband, Jake, were working the land that they’d purchased from his aunt Louise when her marriage to the shop owner moved her to town.

Bailey’s parents, George and Mary Garner, lived nearby and ran sheep with the help of his brothers, but they never seemed to get ahead like the rest of the family and often relied on their relatives to make ends meet.

“Is your mother’s family expecting you?” Weston asked.

“Yes, sir. Uncle Matthew’s got me a job, and Aunt Frances is putting me up. I’m all set.”

Weston swerved closer to avoid a wagon that pulled into the street. “I guess you’ve prayed through this, but it seems like a contradiction, if you ask me. You swear off Molly, and then you move to Lockhart. Don’t know but what you aren’t playing with fire.”

“Believe me, I’ve wondered aplenty if I’m doing the right thing, but this seems best. There’s no future for me on the ranch, not with two brothers who’ll want their share. I’ve always known I wanted to move to town and have a career. Now that Samuel and Tuck can take up the slack, I’m free to make my fortune.”

“So you’re doing it for your gal, but doing it without your gal?”

“It’s like to drive me crazy not talking to her, but we needed to take a few steps back to get on the right path again. Besides, I don’t need any distractions, because until I can support Molly, it’s clear that God has said, ‘Not yet.’” He saw Weston’s shoulders twitch with mirth. “All right, maybe Molly’s parents said it, too, but I’ll keep my distance until God changes their minds or my income, because I’m hooked. Ever since primer school when she whooped everyone at arithmetic drills, I knew she was the girl for me.”

“Of all the credentials I’ve heard for a wife, that’s got to be one of the strangest.”

Bailey was no good at sums, but he could decipher Molly, and she knew it. Long ago she’d given up trying to keep secrets from him. She needed him. And he needed to be needed.

Bailey’s knees tightened around the saddle as they approached the hotel. He couldn’t keep the doubt from crawling back. Did Molly remember why he was leaving her alone?

“It’s a brave move to risk losing your girl.” Weston reined his horse toward the hitching post. “One caution, though. Don’t get discouraged if you stumble. Sometimes we have to deal with the same temptations time and time again.”

“We’re supposed to be ‘more than conquerors,’” Bailey protested.

“Conquerors can lose a few battles along the way. Just yesterday I was talking to your pa—”

Bailey dismounted and looped the reins tightly over the hitching post, trying to avoid a reciting of his pa’s story. They’d almost lost their ranch and endangered his aunt Louise’s farm because of his father’s love of cards. He didn’t need Weston to remind him of his family’s embarrassment. George Garner was a fine man. His pa loved him like the dickens, but Bailey was made of sterner stuff. Thank the Lord he didn’t inherit the same weakness.

“I’m starved.” Bailey nodded to the wide hotel with the real second story. “This place looks good.” And smelled good, too. His stomach gurgled at the meaty aromas wafting out the swinging batwing doors. Aunt Frances wasn’t expecting him until suppertime, and with her houseful of children he knew better than to show up unannounced and hungry.

Bailey followed Weston into the restaurant and nearly bumped into his back when he stopped abruptly. Weston turned around.

“Let’s go to the Hungry Drover. It won’t be as full.”

“I don’t mind. Got to get used to the hustle and bustle of a crowd if I’m going to live in town.” Bailey stepped past his cousin, afraid he was about to dig in his heels.

And there she sat.

Molly spotted him at the same moment.

Bailey groaned as he took measure of the uptight man with the pinched face and beetle-brown sack suit. It didn’t take a genius to figure what she was up to.

“No wonder you threw on the brakes.”

“I tried to warn you.” His older cousin avoided controversy like preachers avoided the Minor Prophets, and for once Bailey was grateful.

“Weston? Is that you?” The man’s voice traveled over the din to lasso them.

The cousins exchanged weary glances, but Weston was trapped.

With one last dark look at him, Weston turned. “Hello, Mr. Fenton, Miss Lovelace. How y’all doing?”

Bailey had no choice but to follow as Weston did his duty. Molly’s gown, the same dusky color as a rain cloud, suited his mood. He’d anticipated her parents would present her with new suitors, but not that she’d fold so easily. At least her companion didn’t look pleased. If watching Molly talk to other men got this Fenton character riled, he’d better poke his eyes out.

“Mr. Fenton, my cousin Bailey Garner.”

The man stood and offered his hand.

“Mr. Fenton works at the bank.” Molly set her fork down next to her plate and wiped her fingertips on the napkin. “Our fathers are business associates.”

He should’ve known. Bailey shook hands with the man and then tried to wipe off the contact on his canvas britches.

“Pleased to meet you.” But he wasn’t.

“I heard you’re building a new house,” Weston said.

“Yes, it’s nearing completion.”

“Is that the new two-story with the beautiful mansard roof on San Antonio Street?” Molly asked, leaning halfway across the table.

Fenton nodded.

“It’s magnificent.”

Bailey narrowed his eyes. Was she sincere or merely pretending for his benefit? It didn’t matter. Mr. Fenton squirmed like a worm on a hook. He looked longingly at his plate of roast beef.

“Yes, well, if you’ll excuse me, Weston, Mr. Garner. My dinner hour is nearly over, and I’ve yet to finish my meal.”

Bailey looked up to see Molly scowling at him. She narrowed her eyes and then cooed to Fenton with the subtlety of an auctioneer, “It’s a pity you don’t have time to converse, but I guess the bank can hardly do without you. Perhaps we can visit with the Mr. Garners some other time.”

She paused, offering them the opportunity to voice their regrets.

Boy, was she putting on a show, trying to herd them all exactly where she wanted them. But Bailey wouldn’t be led by the nose. Time to stampede.

He picked up an empty chair from the nearest table with one hand and slung it between his legs, dropping into it backwards. “There’s nowhere in the world that I’d rather be than here, becoming better acquainted with Mr. Fenton.”

Molly’s eyes widened. “Oh?”

“Yes, I’ve long been fascinated with the banking business. I’m sure it’s a breathtaking and dangerous venture. And your house, Mr. Fenton?” He batted his eyes and raised the pitch of his voice an octave. “Oh, I so admire everyone who lives on San Antonio Street.”

Molly’s attempts to incinerate him with her eyes failed. He was fireproof.

“Bailey,” Weston warned.

Bailey cringed, not sure by which piece of his anatomy Weston might drag him out, but his mentor could hardly act as barbaric in the eatery as he would’ve on the ranch.

Weston nudged the leg of his chair. “There’s not room at the table for four. Let them finish alone.”

But Mr. Fenton blinked first. He smirked at Molly although he spoke to Weston. “No, please. Take my place. It’s an honor I’m willing to relinquish. Please pass the seat on to the next man when he arrives.”

“You must disregard him, Mr. Fenton. He is leaving.” She got to her feet, but her protests were losing strength.

Fenton tossed a bill on the table, dipped his head to Weston, ignored Bailey, and left the dining room as fast as his rounded-toe shoes allowed.

“You ran off my escort. Father will not be happy,” Molly said.

But she didn’t look upset. Despite the hand on her hip, she seemed relieved. Her eyes sparkled and her pert mouth tilted.

“I’m trying to help you out,” Bailey said.

“If you wanted to help, you’d be building a house on San Antonio Street instead of lollygagging about town.” But the only work she was doing was twisting a blond curl around her shapely finger.

Then she noticed Weston.

Bailey couldn’t help but be charmed by the change in her. He was captivated by the thought that she had expressions and mannerisms only he was privy to. Decorum replaced the eagerness on her face. She resumed her proper poise, but Weston didn’t notice the difference.

“Won’t you join us?” Bailey reclaimed his seat. “Weston can chaperone, so I should be safe from your charms.”

She rolled her eyes. “I must return to the courthouse. Employment seems to be a rare commodity these days. I don’t want to jeopardize my own.”

With a nod at Weston, Molly clomped across the room so strongly that her square heels could’ve left indentions on the oak floor.

Weston took a seat across from Bailey as the batwing door swung shut behind her. Leaning back, he crossed his legs at the ankles and frowned at his charge from across the table.

“You’re playing with fire, Bailey. Playing with fire.”

The three-story sandstone courthouse looked like a castle, complete with turrets and a waving flag at the pinnacle. Entering through the red sandstone arch as the giant clock chimed, Molly could almost imagine that she was a princess returning to a celebration in her honor. Smiling, dipping her head, she could keep the fantasy alive until she crossed the golden tiles in the entry and reached the land office.

The wooden door eased open just enough for Molly to squeeze her lobster-tail bustle through. Open it any further and the movement would be visible from Mr. Travis’s office, and getting caught meant—

“Miss Lovelace, did you not hear the courthouse clock chime one? There was a vacancy at your desk when the event occurred. Again.” Mr. Travis’s beard hung on sagging skin and hid his jaw completely.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry.” Molly untied her hat and exchanged it for her inky apron that hung on the pegboard. She pressed a hand to her rosy cheek, willing it to fade, along with the memory of her tumultuous dinner. Hopefully her father would think she’d suffered enough and wouldn’t require her to make another attempt with the prickly Mr. Fenton. Dinner would’ve been a complete loss if it weren’t for Bailey’s appearance. And what was even better, he’d seen her with another man. Complete triumph.

“Being sorry doesn’t get the work done. I answer to the taxpayers of Caldwell County, and I can’t justify spending their funds on workers who neglect their stations.”

Behind Mr. Travis, Molly’s co-worker Carrie rolled her green eyes and flapped her hand open and closed like a duck’s beak quack, quack, quacking.

“. . . empty all the waste bins after hours—that means on your own time. And see that you aren’t tardy again.”

“Yes, sir,” Molly repeated.

As soon as the latch on his office door clicked into place, Carrie slid off her stool and rushed to Molly’s work station.

“How was dinner? What did he do? Did he talk about Prue?”

Molly unbuttoned four buttons on her right wrist and pushed back the cuff. If only her situation excited her as much as it did Carrie.

“I survived. That’s all I’m going to say.” Molly touched her neckline and straightened her hair.

Carrie’s sharp eyes searched her face. “What happened? You’re hiding something.”

“It wasn’t as bad as I expected. That’s all.”

“Do you think he’ll leave Prue? He didn’t make advances, did he?”

“Don’t be absurd.” Molly shuddered at the thought. How high a price was she willing to pay to please her father?

Turning her back to Carrie, she took the stack of letters delivered during the noon hour, opened the top envelope, and extracted the payment. The smell of ink and the newly bound ledger cleared her head. Numbers were faithful friends. They didn’t expect you to waste your youth waiting. They didn’t tempt you and then embarrass you publicly. They stayed on their paper until you had time for them, and they always followed the rules.

“Mr. Saul Nimenko, sixteen dollars and twenty-two cents.” Molly dipped her quill in the inkpot and scratched the entry onto the page. Then she slid off the stool and followed Carrie to the wall of bookshelves. Land parcels in the northwest section of Prairie Lea—that was the volume she needed. Carrie took the heavy book for the south central region of Lockhart in both hands and stepped out of her way.

“Northwest, northwest,” she whispered to herself. She’d never met Mr. Saul Nimenko, but if his property tax was a measly $16.22, she didn’t need to meet him. She’d do just as well with Bailey.

The rat.

The office door squeaked open, and a sturdy brunette peeked around the corner.


Molly ducked her head as Carrie silently waved her friend over. Former friend. The lady would certainly never claim any association with her now.

“Prue, what are you doing here?” Carrie set the heavy book on her table without a noise. “Is court out of session?”

“The jury is in deliberations, so I slipped away.” She smoothed her dark skirt, and with another furtive glance toward Mr. Travis’s door, she leaned across the counter to whisper, “How are my friends in the land office doing?”

Molly lowered her eyes. She felt bad enough already. She mumbled a greeting, trying not to recount Judge Rice’s words. Evidently Prue didn’t believe that any association between her and Fenton was merely endured. She sighed. It was strange that a man like Mr. Fenton had become besotted with the blacksmith’s daughter. Molly expected her to attract a nice humble boy—someone as good as gold and shabby as burlap—not a connoisseur like the banker.

“Your friends are doing quite well, thank you,” Carrie said. “At least Molly is. She dined with Mr. Fenton today.”

Molly groaned. Didn’t Carrie understand how hurtful her comments were? Did she enjoy the discomfort she was causing?

Prue’s large brown eyes rested on Molly. She pressed her hand against her olive shirtwaist and swallowed slowly. “Did he have his roast beef?”

Molly nodded.

“Good. If he eats anything else for dinner he suffers from indigestion. He’d prefer to eat at home, but his kitchen is under construction, and there’s no one to cook for him.”

“There will be soon, if Molly has her way,” Carrie said.

“Carrie, stop,” Molly said.

“Why? Prue’s being a sport. If Mr. Fenton prefers you, it’s best he realizes it before he finds himself bound in holy matrimony to the wrong person.”

Prue’s face turned gray. “I should go. The jury may have reached a verdict.” She clasped her hands together in a martyr’s pose. “But I have a favor to ask, Molly. If you have a free evening, would you come for a visit? Come for supper if you’re tired of the fare at the boardinghouse.”

Visit the McGraws? Did Prue really want her there, or was she trying to increase Molly’s guilt? In the long run, it didn’t really matter. She could hardly refuse.

“Thank you, Prue. I’d like that.”

And she would if the weight of her father’s schemes didn’t rest so heavily on her conscience.

Carrie, being free from culpability, had no compunction about voicing her opinion, which she did on their walk home after work.

“Why doesn’t Prue say what she thinks? She must be fuming. I can imagine how I’d feel if you’d gone after a beau of mine in the same way.” The girls linked arms as they crossed the street in front of the courthouse and made their way to the boarded sidewalk of the square.

“But I’m not. Not really. It’s all been arranged by our parents.”

They made a pretty picture promenading before the storefronts, or so Molly thought as she watched their reflection in the windows they passed. She straightened her back so as not to appear slouchy next to Carrie’s flawless posture. And did her charcoal ensemble appear drab next to Carrie’s lemon shirtwaist?

“She should’ve seen it coming,” Carrie continued. “I can’t imagine why Mr. Fenton has put up with her mousy ways for so long. She should claw your eyes out. Who wants a spineless woman?”

“Believe me, I wish she’d fight for him,” Molly said.

Carrie’s long strides moved Molly too fast to produce the correct swing in her skirts. Her hat bobbed as she tried to keep up, Mother’s deportment lessons cast aside.

“I can’t fault their logic,” Carrie agreed. “What business does a blacksmith’s daughter have with a family like the Fentons? She’d be better off with that cowboy, Bailey.”

Molly skidded to a stop.

“Don’t be ridiculous. Bailey and Prue would never suit. He’s so . . . dangerous. Wild. He’d scare her knickers off.”

“Bailey? He seems like more of a goody-goody. Too tame for me. Unless . . . unless Bailey has some potent charm you’ve kept secret.”

The hair on the back of Molly’s neck stood at an unbidden memory. Stunned, Molly dropped her handbag on the boarded sidewalk. Where had that chill come from? So startled was she that she swooped to snatch it off the ground before considering the right angle for her descent. Carrie didn’t release her hold on Molly’s arm until the last minute, throwing her off balance and causing her to fall on her hands and knees.

“Be careful,” Carrie snorted. With a firm grip, she hauled Molly to her feet. She held the errant handbag while Molly dusted herself off and straightened her skirts over the boning underneath. “Don’t look now, but we’re being observed.”

Molly’s furious arranging immediately ceased, and she assumed an air of a queen inspecting her . . . what did queens inspect? Who knew? Molly didn’t have time to read old books while a man like the one standing in front of the bank roamed the earth.

At first glance she was convinced he was golden. Perfection incarnate. But as she scrutinized him, she realized her opinion was formed more by his bowler hat and silk cravat than his physical attributes. His frock coat was fuller than any she’d seen before, and his trousers were heroically striped, making her workday dress look dull by comparison.

She couldn’t see the color of his hair because of his hat but assumed it to be the same shade as his light-brown moustache, unless it was heavily waxed. Yes, the part above his full lips evidenced wax. She smiled. Good grooming meant good breeding. Between the hat, his gloves, and his spats, very little of him was actually visible—only lively eyes and an arrogant jaw.

A queen inspecting her noble courtiers. That’s what Molly would inspect if she were queen.

Aware they couldn’t return blatant stares, Molly and Carrie resumed their stroll, but not before Molly noted the cane and thick gold chain leading undoubtedly to a heavy pocket watch.

“An interesting development,” Carrie said. “Not that he’ll pay me any mind. He only had eyes for you.”

Molly pretended to pick lint off her shoulder to get another look. He remained in front of the bank, folding bills into a thick wallet. “Let’s pray my parents don’t hear about him.”



“Ow! That’s hot!” Bailey dropped the tongs as his knuckle brushed against a smoldering bar of iron. He popped his finger into his mouth.

“It is a blacksmith shop,” Mr. McGraw groused as he pumped the bellows. The flames in the forge burst from orange to white hot, radiating enough heat to keep the structure sweltering, even though the double doors were thrown open and summer had long gone.

Picking up his tongs, Bailey found the wooden bucket and immersed his hand. Ah, relief. But his hand would heal before his eyes would. His first day on the job and his eyes felt like he’d rubbed them with onions. Maybe the smell of manure back on the ranch wasn’t so bad after all.

He took a swipe of the ointment offered by the thick blacksmith and smeared it on his knuckle, the blister already filling with fluid. “I’ll work the bellows for you. It looks safer.”

Mr. McGraw’s muttonchops swung as he slid his jaw around. “Naw, go over there. That iron is ready. Draw it out on the anvil, and when it gets an eighth of an inch thick, bring it to me. Oh, and Bailey, use the tongs, not your bare hands.”

McGraw’s son laughed from his bench near the forge. The younger McGraw stood half a foot shorter than Bailey and possessed forearms the size of hams and a schoolgirl giggle.

“Reckon I deserved that.” Bailey swung the glowing iron his way and grinned as his eyes grew big. He had been so clumsy today the man had every right to worry. Positioning the iron bar on the anvil, he squeezed the tongs firmly and swung the hammer. The vibrations of the blow reverberated up his left arm. Renewing his grip, he struck again.

Satisfying. Sometimes a man needed to work out some frustration. Bailey wasn’t a fighter, but the more he thought about Molly with Fenton, the more he could picture himself overturning tables, firing off a few rounds into the night sky, and maybe even kicking a dog. There he’d be—on the fringes of society like that no-account Michael James. If Molly married Fenton, Bailey might as well loiter outside the local saloon with Michael and harass passersby. He smiled in spite of himself, imagining the church folks’ shock. Well, he’d raise a glass to them and . . . no, he wouldn’t. Bailey possessed equal parts fear of the Lord and fear of his ma. The Lord would have the final judgment, but his ma might move up the trial date if he crossed her.

Bailey flipped the rod and banged on the other side. Molly would wait on him. She’d want him to worry over her, sure, but she knew he was trying to do right by her. And God would reward him, too. He was finally setting out on the right path. If he wanted to be successful like Mr. Lovelace, he needed to find his place in the world. As much as he loved his own father, he didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. He didn’t want to live season to season barely squeaking by.

The smoky air burned his lungs. He wiped his tears with his sleeve before young McGraw saw it and laughed at him again. The smithing job came available at the right time, but it might not work out after all.

“Howdy, Prue. Quitting time already?” Mr. McGraw called.

The young lady looked ill at ease in her olive dress, as if even the simple gown were too fine for her. She hurried to old McGraw’s side and kissed him on the cheek. “Let me change, and I’ll offer what little help I can.”

“No hurry. Bailey is giving us a hand.”

Prue straightened. “Then I’ll get supper on.”

She tarried at the edge of the shelter. Bailey swung his hammer twice more before she worked up the nerve to speak.

“Bailey? Molly’s Bailey?”

Bailey lowered his hammer. Did Molly still claim him? He couldn’t really say one way or another. “My hide doesn’t carry her brand.”

“Of course not,” she stammered. “I didn’t mean . . .”

“Molly?” Her brother growled. “Is this the same Molly who stole your Mr. Fenton?”

Now the unfortunate girl truly was speechless. Her mouth pursed. She blinked rapidly and studied the glowing coals in the furnace. “His hide doesn’t carry my brand.”

But three men at the forge were all eager to remedy that oversight.

Bailey’s mouth twisted. The stuffy Mr. Fenton, huh? He’d done his best to nip that thistle in the bud. Bailey pounded on the bar, imagining it decked out in a beetle-brown sack suit. Between ringing strikes he heard Prue’s timid voice again.

“Mr. Bailey, did you come to town looking for a job?”

He shot a glance at her father.

“He’s got one here, if he can take the smoke. Pity such a strong back got paired with delicate eyes.”

Junior giggled again and earned an impatient look from Prue.

“I’ve recently heard of one, actually. Bailiff. Pays decent, no smoke, and—” Prue paused until he met her eyes—“a charming co-worker in the land office next door.”

A smile spread across his face as he recognized a conspirator. “I don’t want to leave your father shorthanded.”

McGraw spat into the sizzling fire. “Stay around till I get someone else. If you’ll swing your hammer instead of swinging your jaw, that is.”

Fair enough. He could hardly carry on a conversation over the ringing iron. Bailey watched as Prue disappeared into the house. Molly spoke of Prue with respect, and from her description, Bailey had assumed that Prue was older, matronly. What a surprise. Now, Carrie he knew well. She boarded with Molly and figured into many of her stories, but somehow he couldn’t wrap his mind around the fact that Prue was perhaps even younger than the other girls. Not an old maid at all.

The woman in the olive dress reappeared to present her father with a tin pail of fresh drinking water before slipping into the house again.

The McGraws were respectable, church-going folks. Bailey’s uncle had sent him to Mr. McGraw to ask for job, knowing the man would treat him fairly. Even his mother encouraged him to call on the McGraws. Bailey didn’t know they had a daughter, but something told him his mother did when she and Uncle Matthew procured this job for him.

“Are you still taking customers?” a familiar voice called from the sunny road.

“Come on over, Reverend,” Mr. McGraw offered. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m looking for some nails and two heavy hinges. We’re sprucing up the Lockhart parsonage.”

“You’re leaving Prairie Lea?” Bailey asked.

Reverend Stoker took a second look. “Bailey? What are you doing here?”

“McGraw’s letting me try my hand at smithing.” Bailey wiped his irritated eyes.

With hands in his pockets, the pastor moseyed over to inspect Bailey’s work. “Looks like you can swing a hammer.” He winked at the blacksmith. “To answer your question, I’m splitting my time between the two churches, and Mrs. Stoker would rather live closer to the city than in the little Prairie Lea parsonage.”

Bailey’s iron bar had cooled. Careful not to impale young McGraw or the reverend, he carried it to the forge and thrust it in the coals. “I’d be glad to help when you move.”

“Both parsonages are furnished, but there would be a trunk or two. Actually, if you have your evenings free, I could use some help fixing the place up.”

“I have my evenings free.” The smoke mercilessly aggravated his eyes. Who would have thought he’d be so sensitive? He wiped at them again.

“McGraw, do you mind if I have a word with Bailey? I won’t keep him.”

“Talking’s what he does best,” McGraw grunted.

Well, now he’d have to work late. Smoke or no, Bailey had negotiated for a day’s labor. He’d see to it that McGraw got a day’s work no matter how long it took him. Bailey followed Reverend Stoker out of the shop to stand in the pile of leaves donated by the bare sycamore overhead.

Stoker’s eyes were filled with concern, peeking from beneath his full gray forelock. “How are you doing, son?”

Bailey sniffed, his watery eyes having affected his nose. “I’d feel a sight better not breathing in all that smoke.”

“The reason I ask is because lately you’ve been the topic of several conversations between my wife and me, and she asked a pertinent question. Do you think you might be called to the ministry?”

Bailey put his throbbing knuckle to his mouth and then spit out the nasty-tasting salve. “The ministry?” He shook his head. “I’m not fit for the ministry.”

“That’s for God to decide, isn’t it? You have a heart for the Lord and a way with people. Something to keep in mind as you search.”

“My way with people got me in trouble. I can’t be all holy unless I quit loving—” Bailey stopped. “Is this confidential?”

“Why are you concerned now? You’ve already unburdened your soul before the whole church.” Stoker chuckled. “Caring for Molly isn’t wrong. Only when you love her more than you love God does it become a problem.”

“With God so far away and Molly so . . . here . . . it’s hard to keep my sights on the target.”

“And how about Molly? Where are her eyes fixed?”

Bailey caught a leaf floating down and twirled it by the stem, afraid to answer the question. He didn’t know about her relationship with God. He was too busy trying to shore up her relationship with him, and the longer they were apart the more concerned he became.

But how could he be a good influence for her if she was with someone else? Had God taken that into account?

Molly’s new gown with the mandarin collar was making its debut on the damp streets of Lockhart that morning. She’d waited until the leaves had scattered before breaking out the emerald taffeta, hoping that an infusion of green would bring warm thoughts to those she encountered, although she usually had to wait until her noontime break before meeting anyone interesting.

Was her digestion going to be ruined by the woebegone sighs of Mr. Fenton, or was her dinner unclaimed? She couldn’t remember. Thoughts popped up in Molly’s head as numerous as soap bubbles, and the only way to keep up was to record them in her blue leather journal. Since it contained her personal musings, she kept it close. Risky, but better to write her plans and achieve them than allow them to remain vague and unreached. She flipped to her daily

To Do List:

Take shirtwaist to Mrs. Leeth’s to replace ink-stained cuffs.

Buy Father a cigar and beg him to forget Mr. Fenton.

Regretfully decline Prue’s invitation.

No dinner with Fenton mentioned. All was good. She returned the journal to her beaded bag and swung it against her skirt, throwing flecks of light on the damp gravel road leading to the town square. Was the rain from the preceding night enough to bring the river up? If her father could stop hauling the lumber across land, he wouldn’t be so desperate—or so he claimed, but by now Molly had learned that her father’s slightest whim was everyone else’s emergency.

Down the quiet lane she meandered in zigzags, keeping her steps on the driest spots. She’d left the boardinghouse a little early, wanting to put some distance between her and Carrie. Boarding with her co-worker had seemed like a good idea at the time, but sometimes Carrie’s harsh remarks stung. While they were probably meant in jest, continued exposure to her sarcasm affected Molly’s spirits. Occasionally she needed to get away from Carrie’s prying. The girl had noticed how Molly looked around every corner and jumped when the courthouse door opened.

“Expecting someone?” she’d laughed.

No, Molly didn’t expect anyone to come looking for her, but if Bailey did, she wanted him to catch her having the time of her life.

She paused when she reached the mimosa tree in Mr. Hernandez’s yard. The man strolling through the intersection didn’t see her, his morning promenade being one of intense reflection. Molly squinted at the curiosity. Strangers weren’t unusual in Lockhart. As the jumping-off point of the cattle trail, cowboys comprised a large chunk of the landscape, but the man passing before her was no cowboy.

She fell into step behind him after he’d traveled a respectable distance. Where had she seen him before? Medium build, perfectly tailored suit, bowler hat—at the bank, of course. As if reenacting her memory, he reached into his coat and pulled something out. The wallet wasn’t distinguishable until he dropped it on the ground.

“Oops.” Molly covered her mouth.

He didn’t hear her. She watched as he pushed aside his coat and stood with his hands on his hips contemplating the wallet. Why didn’t he pick it up? It had fallen into a depression of sorts and was surely getting wetter the longer it remained in the puddle.

The man kicked at the wallet and missed. Molly stopped walking to observe the gentleman’s odd behavior. With his cane, he dragged the wallet to higher ground and squatted next to it. Carefully taking his gloved hand, he tried to flip it open but jerked at the contact as if it’d bit him. He might be rich, but he was evidently as crazy as a loon.

He straightened, studied the wallet a moment longer, and then walked away, leaving it lying in the middle of the road.

What kind of feathers filled his head?

“Excuse me, sir,” she called out. “You forgot your wallet.”

He turned, and she giggled at his sheepish expression. His perfectly parted moustache stretched above generous lips and straight teeth as he grinned.

“Yes, well. I think I’ll do my best to forget it. It’s dreadfully soiled.”

“You’re going to leave it there? Someone will take it.”

“I do hope so. I came to tour the Wild West, and frankly, you people aren’t living up to your reputation. Since I haven’t been held up at gunpoint, I’ll make a donation. Yes, that will suffice.”

Molly bent to appraise the full wallet, not forgetting to arrange her posture to her best advantage. She tilted her head up to him and let her eyes do the smiling for her. “Surely you jest. This is rainwater. Your bills are probably cleaner now than after they’ve passed through the hands of our local residents.”

He grimaced at the revelation. “I don’t mean to insult your sensibilities, but since I have no interest in reclaiming it, and since you would loathe touching—”

Before he could say another word, Molly snatched it up. Holding it away from her new gown, she shook it, knocking loose a few stray drops.

“I’ll dry this out and have it to you tomorrow. I can’t bear the thought of leaving your property behind.”

“I really don’t want it . . .”

“It will wash out.”

“. . . but I would be pleased if our paths crossed again.”

“Oh.” Molly stopped. She hadn’t meant to elicit an invitation, but she wasn’t about to turn one down. “I’m afraid we’ve not been—”

“Edward Pierrepont, at your service.” He removed his hat and bowed. His sandy hair was lighter than his moustache. She’d guessed it. Wax. “I apologize that there’s no one present to make proper introductions.”

“Molly Lovelace. Pleased to meet you.” Goodness, but she was glad she left without Carrie. Keeping his wallet safely away from her skirt, she resumed her stroll, not surprised when he joined her. On impulse she turned left. It would take them to the courthouse—eventually. “From where do you hail?”

“My family resides in New York most of the year.”

“New York? How exhilarating. You left New York to come here?”

“It’s not as you imagine, not if you live there, anyway. The pretenses, the intrigues.” He shook his head. “I yearn for new horizons and adventure, while my set expects to be pampered like the Czarina’s lapdog. Not me. I want to see the world.”

“And have you?” Molly turned right at the intersection, hoping Mr. Pierrepont wouldn’t notice how their path meandered.

“Of course. I took the required grand tour of Europe and then traveled even farther for family business—Constantinople, Moscow, Tangiers—and this journey will culminate in the Alaskan tundra. I loved the exotic. The sounds, the colors. Not the smells, necessarily.” His wrinkled nose relaxed into a genuine smile. He really was quite handsome.

Molly had to tear her gaze away. She shouldn’t be making cow eyes at him. He was a nomad, not husband material. But even rich New Yorkers had to marry someone, didn’t they?

“Surely you want a family, a wife? Doesn’t domestic felicity appeal to you?” Her heart raced at her brazenness, but if he was merely traveling through, why not have her curiosity satisfied?

He sighed and studied the rising sun before answering. “I deeply desire to have a woman at my side. Someone who would travel and explore with me. Someone with whom to share my adventures. Who says a woman must stay by the hearth and wait for her wandering man? With ample funds, travel can be luxurious, even out here.”

Molly pondered as they walked. This new data needed to be organized and filed. Like her tax payments, every idea should fit neatly into well-established categories. She might have to open a new ledger for this possibility. Touring socialite. Would he meet the parental requirements? Would a dalliance with a rich tourist release Mr. Fenton and her from their painful association?

All too soon she realized the courthouse was looming before them.

“I’ve enjoyed our stroll, Mr. Pierrepont, but my destination is ahead. Thank you for escorting me.”

“To the courthouse? It’d be my pleasure to walk you to the door.”

“No, no. That’s unnecessary.” No use in piquing Carrie’s curiosity. “But what about your wallet?”

“You may find me at the McCulloch Hotel, with or without the wallet, but please don’t trouble yourself. Our paths will cross again.”

Molly blinked at the certainty in his voice.

“Now, if you’ll excuse me, Miss Lovelace. My morning wanderings have left me somewhat disoriented. Isn’t the hotel a block down Market Street?”

He’d noticed. She blushed in what she’d been told was a charming manner. “Yes, that’s the most direct route. Good day, Mr. Pierrepont.”

He tipped his hat and performed a complicated pirouette to avoid another puddle as he departed.

Molly filled her lungs with the damp morning air and steeled herself for another day at the thin mercies of Mr. Travis. She hoped he was in a fair mood. She hoped the river was high again. And since hoping was free, she’d hope that Bailey had found a job—one that paid generously.

Another week gone by and she hadn’t heard from him. He was making good on his promise to keep his distance, but what if his reasons weren’t as noble or charitable as he claimed? What if he had tired of her but didn’t have the heart to tell her?

The man in the spiffy suit disappeared behind the livery stable as he turned the corner. How many opportunities might slip away while she waited for Bailey? Was he waiting for her?

Love in the Balance
by by Regina Jennings