The corset kept her standing straight as she walked by the wolf-whistles around her. She knew she was possibly taking her life in her hands, walking alone from the hotel to the store, and taking the round-about way to boot. She passed three saloons. How could men be drunk this early in the morning?
It was Saturday. She knew her brother would be open today, and the Jewish store across the way would be closed. She also knew her father was going to introduce her to some men today. She didn't want to be there for that. If she hid out at the store, maybe her father wouldn't come looking for her.
She tried the front door of the store, and it was locked. Men leered at her from the saloon. She stood at the doorway, tapping her foot and her parisol on the wooden boards. She debated going around back to the cottage to find out what was going on. But then she'd have to pass by these men.
She lifted her head high, her parasol over her shoulder, and she walked purposefully down the porch area, heading to the back. Men whistled, some yelled at her.
"Hey, bitch! Nice legs!"
She stopped. Someone actually called her a bitch!
The men hawed and hurred at her as she stopped cold in her tracks. Fury crossed her face as she whirled around and stared hard at the men. "HOW DARE YOU!"
They laughed even more. She realized that they did what they set out to do. She raised her head angrily, and turned around sharply - into Casey's arms.
She squeaked, startled. The man who held her was in long sleeves, looking like he had just thrown the shirt on and ran out the door. He was in pants, barefoot, and his hair was touseled. He was looking at her intently, studying her for something. She stared deep into his eyes, and saw something so old that it frightened her for a moment, and then comforted her. She realized he had his hands on her hips, and she had her hands on his arms, and they both blinked at the same time, realizing this. They both jumped away from each other, looking shamefaced.
"I'm sorry, Miss McLoughlin," Casey said. "I thought you were in trouble."
Claire pulled her parasol protectively in front of her. She noticed his accent was neutral, and his grammar perfect. She looked down at the parasol and forcibly put it to the side of her. "I...thank you, Mr. Donovan. I need only to ignore these ruffians."
"Sometimes that doesn't work, miss. If it doesn't, I'll make sure it does." Claire looked at his muscular arms and large, weathered hands; and had a deep feeling that yes, indeed, he could. She honestly, though, wanted to see what she glimpsed behind his eyes, and wondered what he was looking for in hers. "Are you looking for Bart?"
"I thought the store would be open."
Casey looked behind him. "They took the cart. Something must have happened to one of the kids last night." He looked at Claire. "Would you like me to bring you back to the hotel and you can--"
"No!" She put her hand over her mouth at saying the word so loudly and so quickly. "I'm...sorry. I really don't want to go back to any hotels. I've been living out of them for so long, I would rather have some fresh air."
"Well, miss, there's really no place for you to sit out here to wait, and I wouldn't want to leave you alone."
"Nonsense." She walked over to the three steps that led up to the cottage, and gathered her skirts up under herself.
Casey said, "Wait, miss." He dashed into the barn and came out with an Indian-styled blanket, which he spread on the stairs. It smelled faintly of horse, but she appreciated what he was trying for. She sat on the blanket, then moved over for him to sit next to her. He looked around, as if that was a bad idea.
"Sit, please. I want to talk to you."
Casey sat down, keeping his distance between her. As an added precaution, she put her parasol on her lap. "You, Mr. Donovan, are an enigma."
The corners of his lips went up in a smile. "Haven't heard that word in a long, long, while, Miss McLoughlin."
"You know what that means."
"Of course. And it's been applied to me once or twice."
She folded her arms and leaned back slightly, giving him a steady look. "Were you in the war?"
"Yes'm, I fought on the Rebel side." He looked down at the space between them. "I was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 43rd Cavalry Battalion, under General John S. Mosby."
She tilted her head. "Mosby? I heard that name."
"He was called 'The Gray Ghost'. We were a battalion of raiders in Virginia."
Her eyes widened. "Mosby's Raiders."
"Yes'm. I was one of the leaders of a few squads an' brigades. We fought like Indian fighters. I'd fought with Indians before, so it was only natural for me."
"How old are you, Mr. Donovan?"
He jerked his head up. "I'll be 33 this fall."
"You've seen a lot in your 33 years."
His eyebrow went up. "Yes, I suppose I have. What about you, Mr. McLoughlin?"
"A lady doesn't discuss her age."
"That doesn't seem fair."
"You, Mr. Donovan, are older than me."
"I could tell that. Which school did you go to? Not in Virginia."
"Vassar. It is a new women's college that opened up in New York."
"New York City?"
He frowned, thinking. "Near the Catskills."
She blinked at him. "You know where it is?"
"I've been through New York state."
"Were you a plantation owner?"
"I was an owner, yes. I owned Lazy Dawn Plantation. It was named Millett Jr. officially because I never changed the name."
"You owned slaves."
"You set them free after President Lincoln - may God rest his soul - declared it so?"
"I told my manager to set them free if I never returned. Then he got called up, and nobody was left to manage the place. It fell into disrepair, and eventually it was burned to the ground. The fields were burned, everything was destroyed." He stared at the pattern on her parasol. "I had nothing when I walked all the way home, and I had nothing when I came here to Kansas."
She looked down at the pattern also. Her hand reached over and took his, in a comforting gesture.
He suddenly chuckled. "I still remember how to waltz, which is more than these cowboys here can do." He looked up. "Will you dance with me, miss?"
She tilted her head. He got up, and began humming a waltz from Bach, one that was a few years old, but, then, if he was a plantation owner when he said he was, that would be a "modern" waltz for its time. She smiled, took his offered hand, and he continued to hum. He began to lead, and she followed, knowing the tune also. She found herself humming it as well, and then they both began singing the tune to "la la"'s. She was whisked through the dirt, in his strong and confident arms, and the two laughed and sang as they took a tour around the back yard. She was lost in the dance, and she knew he was too; she was lost in him, and decided then and there, that she wanted Casey to court her.
The waltz stopped, he bowed to her, she curtseyed, and the two of them looked up at each other, eyes laughing, breathless. He took a step toward her, and put both hands at her waist. She put her hands at his arms, and they stood there for a long moment.
"I want to marry you," he suddenly said.
She stared at him, her mouth dropped open in shock. "Mister--"
"Casey. Call me Casey, please."
"Then - then, you can call me Claire."
His eyes dropped in acquiescence, and then he looked up into her eyes again. "I'm sorry, I'm usually not so forward."
"I...I..." Her Vassar teachers told her to not ever say what she was going to say. But she said it anyway. "I think I love you, Casey."
This time he gasped, his head jerked back as if slapped. She blushed redder and tried to pull away, but he held her fast. "I think I love you, Claire. No. I know I do."
She looked down. "My father..."
"I will show your father I am a man of means."
She looked back up at him, sharply. "How?"
"You'll see, I promise you."
She took a step back, and this time he let her go. "My father - was going to introduce me - to people today, and that's why I'm not there."
"Courters?" He chuckled. "I've played that game." He took her hand and kissed it. "Tomorrow is Sunday. I will impress your father, I assure you." He kissed her hand again. And again. And held it tight to his chest. "It's been so long..." His eyes met hers. "It's been so very long."
Then they heard something coming toward them, and they turned to see the cart pull into the alleyway. They both looked over, still holding hands, and then Casey dropped her hands as Bart focused on them and the cart stopped.
Dot was not holding a baby in her arms.