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St. Louis, Missouri, 1889
Whistle shrieking, the train jerked to a stop, the sudden lurch throwing Julie Lawson forward. The black silk of her skirt slipped on the hard wooden seat and only the firm bracing of her feet kept her from slipping to the floor. She glanced down at the small valise that hadn't been out of arm's reach since she fled Philadelphia.
Julie shifted back in her seat, hearing the echo of her grandmother's favorite phrase, "Your impulses will get you into trouble one day, Juliette Marie, you mark my words." Gran had certainly been right.
She let out a shallow sigh. The widow's weeds she'd hurriedly dug out of the trunk in the attic required a corset so severely laced a shallow sigh was all she could manage.
The train whistle gave a short toot. "St. Louis! St. Louis! Thirty minute stop in St. Louis!" came the sing-song voice of the conductor.
She glanced at the watch pinned to her bodice. Enough time for her to walk down the platform and back. As she stood, the hat and heavy veil wobbled. Using her reflection in the dusty window as a mirror, she readjusted the long hat pins. The hat more secure, she peered through the glass.
The platform bustled with activity. Fellow passengers came and went, dodging scattered trunks and carpet bags. The harried looking conductor strode by, a piece of paper in his hand and a pencil tucked behind his ear. A small boy in corduroy knickers trailed a large, hairy dog, the boy clutching a piece of twine attached to the dog's collar.
A telegraph office stood at the platform's west end near the panting engine. Standing in front of a row of round-topped steamer trunks, a man waited quietly beside theoffice. His coat and trousers were the color of bitter chocolate. A perfect match to his wide brimmed Stetson and western boots. A pair of saddle bags hung over one shoulder.
Leaving her coat draped across the seat, she lowered the black lace veil, then drew on her black kid gloves. Then picking up the small valise, she left the railroad car.
She walked along the platform, the warm summer air smelling of coal smoke and dust. As she neared the west end of the platform, she noticed the man she'd seen from the window. A growing commotion behind her caused her to turn. All down the platform, people scrambled and yelled, their shouts mingled with a dog's deep bark. A flash of tabby fur streaked past her skirt. The dog bumped her knees as he gallumped past.
Off balance, she stumbled backward. And into a solid, warm male body. Strong arms wrapped around her. Her flailing bag struck him, bringing a muffled exclamation. With a thud they came to rest against a steamer trunk. Turned sideways, she half-sat, half-lay over his long legs. She fought to regain her balance, thwarted by the slick silk of her skirts.
"Hold still, lady," he muttered as hitched her more securely over his lap. "I don't want to drop you."
Throwing her arms around his neck the bag she still held thumped into his back. Another exclamation, this one not so muttered, sounded in her ear.
With one arm about her shoulders, the other stretched across her lap grasping her hip, he kept her from sliding to the ground. For a few seconds, neither of them moved. She started to breathe again, inhaling a faint scent of leather, tobacco and shaving soap.
The masculine scents made her instantly aware of other factors--the intimacy of their position with her draped across his lap, the surrounding warmth of his arms and body. She loosened her grip around his neck and brought the bag back over his shoulder where it plopped to the ground. Unable to get her breath, she blamed the too-tight corset. "I ... I beg your pardon," she stammered.
Her hat dipped so far forward it practically sat on her nose. The pins pulled hurtfully at her hair. Not thinking, she reached to fix it and flipped back the veil. She glanced up and got a good look at her rescuer.
His hat gone, his gold-blond hair curled slightly where it lay too-long about his ears and collar. His muted green eyes widened in surprise. His gaze flicked from her face, to her hair, and back to her face. Julie's stomach dropped like a stone. She jerked the veil back into place.
Without the obscuring veil, she looked even younger than her twenty-one years, her hair a pale, but unmistakable, blonde. Not the gray-haired widow he'd obviously expected. "I do beg your pardon," she repeated. "I'm so sorry."
A grin tugged up one corner of his mouth, white teeth flashing under his blond mustache.
"I'm not," he replied.
Her heart jumped into her throat, reminding her of her scandalous position on his lap. She squared her shoulders, stiffening in his grasp. She swallowed her heart back to its proper place. "Please, sir," she said in her best touch-me-not voice.
His fabulous smile faded. "Yes, ma'am. Sorry."
Carefully, he loosened his grip, allowing her to slide from his lap. Once she'd regained her feet, he stood. For some reason she still couldn't catch her breath. She mentally dratted the corset for making her feel so breathless and light-headed.
After a second, he stooped to pick up his hat. Her gaze followed his movement and she spotted her valise tangled with his saddle bags. "Oh," she gasped.
He shot her a quick glance then extracted the small bag from the snarl of leather.
She twisted her hands together, resisting the impulse to grab for her bag.
"May I carry your bag?" the blond man asked as if to make amends. He gestured with the bag toward where passengers were re-boarding. His face showed a carefully neutral expression. But his green eyes reminded her of the waters of the Chesapeake in a storm. She didn't want to imagine what thoughts those eyes might hide.
"No," she stammered, "no, thank you." She couldn't even get a simple sentence out. When he handed her the valise, her hand brushed his strong, tan one. Even through her glove, Julie imagined the warmth of his touch. "Thank you," she murmured as she turned.
She concentrated on walking with as much dignity as possible as she returned down the platform. He had to be watching, for his gaze tingled between her shoulder blades. At last she regained the haven of the railroad car. Relief washed through her.
She took her seat but couldn't resist looking out the window. He still stood in front of the telegraph office, hat in hand, looking down the platform toward her railroad car. After a moment, he slapped the hat against his thigh before resettling it on his head.
"Al-l-l aaaa-board!" shouted the conductor.
The train whistle echoed with a 'toooo-too-toot!'
A loud clanking was followed by a sudden forward jerk. The whistle shrilled again. A series of short tugs became smooth forward movement. Through the window the train depot and platform began to slide away.
Don't look, she admonished herself. Her head remained straight forward, but her eyes crept toward the window as the telegraph office scrolled by.
Saddle bags resting near his booted feet, he scanned the train. His gaze seemed to penetrate the dusty window and her veil with no problem. His eyes held hers for a split second, making her breath catch. He briefly touched the brim of his hat and nodded as his figure slid past.