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October 1884, near Morrow Creek, Arizona Territory
"Your sister has gone missing again."
At the sound of her father's gravelly voice, Rose Tillson jumped. Hastily she pressed her finger to the account book on her lap, trying to keep her place in the column of penciled figures she was supposed to be tallying.
"Hmm?" Trying to appear wholly innocent, Rose glanced up.
She felt immediately dismayed at the sight before her. Her father stood grumpily just outside the medicine show wagons that housed their belongings, his gray hair on end and his clothing askew. Typically, Dr. George Tillson prided himself on his dapper appearance. Today, though, Viola's latest escapade seemed to have upset him too much for him to bother.
"Oh, Papa! You haven't even buttoned your coat." Rose nodded at the fallen leaves swirling in the autumn breeze nearby. "It's cold! You'll catch your death outside. Here, let me help you."
Clambering down from the wagonan enclosed affair, with the words "Tillson & Healy s Patented Miracle Elixir & Celebrated Panacea"d painted in vibrant lettering on its sidesRose buttoned her father's coat. Then she smoothed his hair and fixed his scarf.
"There." Satisfied that he'd be warm enough, she gave him an affectionate pat. "Now, then. You say Viola's not in camp?"
"Not since sunup, near as I can tell." Her father shook his head, peering into the ponderosa pine and oak-filled forest surrounding their campsite. A short distance from the doused fire their four horses nosed aside the frostbitten leaves, searching for breakfast. "She didn't feed or water the horses, either. I told her we were leaving straightaway this morning."
"I know youdid. Don't worry. I'll go look for her."
"Probably off woolgathering again." He hunched his shoulders. "That girl doesn't have the sense God gave a goose. Or that mangy mouser that's been hanging around here lately."
He pointed. Rose looked, but caught only a glimpse as the small black cat raced into the trees. She had yet to get a good view of the creature. But with All Hallows' Eve only a few days away the appearance of a black cat did make her wonder
"If I find out Viola's been mooning over some 'dashing' customer instead of doing her chores," her papa said, "I'll set her to shoveling horse patties for a week to make up for it!"
"Shh. Mind your temper, Papa." Sympathetically, Rose touched her father's shoulder. "Remember what Sheng Li says staying calm promotes wellness. Whenever you feel agitated, you're supposed to breathe deeply and"
"Don't you start on me. Sheng Li is smart as a whip with those celestial herbs of his, and his elixir has been a godsend to me, that's for certain. But if that Chinaman got close to the sun, he'd give it advice on how it could shine brighter."
"He can be a bit of a know-it-all." Rose pulled her wrap tighter. "No wonder the two of you get along so well."
"Indeed we do." A moment passed. "Now, hang on a minute"
"Except you'd tell the sun to be both brighter and warmer."
"Cheeky girl." Her father's gaze softened as he placed his palm to her cheek. "At least you' ll never worry me the way Viola does with her shenanigans, Rose. You're as dependable as the day is long, and twice as prone to regularity."
"Papa, please." Rose made a face. "You make me sound like a dose of Lintel's castor oil!"
"That's not such a bad thing to a person who needs it." Her father stuck his hands in his pockets, visibly cheered. "Now, quit making that face at me. As your poor dear mother would have said, you don't want it to freeze that way. And when you find Viola, tell her there's no use her trying to sneak in under my nose. I won't be gulled by her tomfoolery. I'm old, not blind."
"I'll tell her. I promise."
"See that you do. And no lollygagging, either."
Rose agreed, watching fondly as her papa headed for their second wagon with his coat still crooked. An energetic man, Dr. George Tillson was also fiercely loving, famously intelligent and occasionally eccentric. He'd abandoned a lucrative medical practice in San Francisco to spread the word about Sheng Li's medicinal elixir, which had restored his own health years ago. Now Rose couldn't remember the days when they'd lived in the city. She only recalled trails and towns and days on the road.
Her sister, however, did remember their more sophisticated existenceand she yearned for it all the time. Even now Viola was probably gazing into Morrow Creek's general store windows, watching trains arriving at the depot or spending part of her savings on tea at the town's fanciest hotel, the Lorndorff.
Viola had a hunger for the bustle and flash of town life, and Morrow Creekwhere yesterday they'd finished making elixir deliveries to accounts and conducting their popular medicine showhad captured her imagination more than most. It was one of Rose's favorite places on the medicine show's circuit, too, bordered by a protective mountain and filled with friendly townsfolk, charming houses and western-style shops.
But that friendliness couldn't compete with their father's rampaging protective streak. As far as Papa was concerned, all unknown men were potential degenerates, just itching to take advantage of a woman alone. Which was why Viola usually sneaked out to gain her freedom and why Rose typically brought her back before their father realized anything was amiss. Today Rose had gotten distracteddisastrously so for Viola's sake. After all, nobody liked shoveling meadow muffins.
Resigned to her mission, Rose reached in the wagon for her gloves. Instead, her gaze fell on the bottle of Lintel's castor oil in a nearby basket. She glowered. Everyone she met thought of her in those castor oil termsdependable, reliable and easy to digest. She'd had just about enough of it, too.
Although Rose had been traveling with her papa's show almost from the day she could toddle up to the wagons, she made it a point to stay out of the spotlight. She was the mousy assistantthe person who kept the accounts, mended the costumes, cooked meals and circulated among the crowd to sell bottles of Tillson & Healy's Patented Miracle Elixir & Celebrated Panacea.
She was not an exciting performer like Viola, eager to sing and dance with all eyes on her or to skedaddle into town on a whim. But for one fleeting moment Rose dared to imagine herself in her sister's place, doing something brash and scandalous.
Her imagination stuttered at the very notion.
With a sigh, Rose plucked up her gloves, then hoisted her skirts and petticoats. Thirty seconds later she was on her way into the forest, searching for her wayward sister and for her own path to undependable, unreliable, uncastor-oil-like living.
If only she had the first notion where to look.
The dried grass crunched beneath her feet. The scent of pine sap filled her nose. So engrossed was Rose in searching for Viola that she nearly missed the sight she savored the most every morning: Will Gavigan, their medicine show's driver, bagman and all-around Johnny helper, striding into the camp as he returned from wherever he'd made his bed for the night.
Riveted, Rose stopped in her tracks to stare shamelessly at him. Even tousle-haired, and focused on some other task, Will appeared magnificent. He'd outfitted himself in brown trousers, a white shirt, a brocade vest, a suit coat, an outer coat, a knit scarf and a flat-brimmed hat. He carried a bedroll beneath his arm as he strode with authority and purpose. He needed to shave, and a haircut wouldn't go amiss, either. But his features were perfect and his teeth were beautiful, and there was something intriguing about him. Something so masculine, so thrilling, so So headed straight toward her this very minute.
Sakes alive. Will Gavigan had caught her ogling him.
"Rose. What are you looking at?" he asked.
His deep voice shook her, making her yearn for a way to keep him talking. Especially since he so rarely moved in the direction he did now closer to her.
Startled, Rose blurted the truth. "I'm looking at you."
A baffled silence greeted her admission.
Rose scarcely noticed. She fancied she could feel the warmth emanating from Will's brawny, fascinating body, and she wanted to snuggle nearer to himmaybe touch his shadowed beard. Those bristly hairs looked as dark as those on his head and on his eyebrows, which were currently raised in query.
I'm looking at you, she remembered herself saying. Oh, no.
Rose whipped her gaze upward, feeling her cheeks heat. "Your, er, walk is odd this morning," she prevaricated.
"Ah. That's the greenbacks in my boot." Appearing more easygoing now that she'd explained herself, Will dropped his bedroll. He slipped off one big boot, then withdrew the hidden currency from inside. "God bless fools and gamblers."
"Oh." Brilliant. Rose stifled a nervous titter. She'd loved Will Gavigan for days, months, years on end. For equally as long he'd been insensible to her infatuation. "You say that as though they're one and the same. Fools and"
He smiled. "In my experience they usually are." "But if you're wagering, aren't you a gambler, too? And therefore a bit of a foo"
"Touché." Folding the bills, Will tucked them securely in his boot again. He replaced his footwear, then grinned at her. "As usual, you're my conscience, Rose. It's a good thing you can't play Faro, else I might never add a thing to my bankroll."
She wrinkled her nose. "First castor oil, now a conscience. At this rate I'll be downgraded to a pinworm by lunchtime."
He gave her a puzzled look. "A pinworm?"
"Never mind. It's not important. Especially not since"
"Your sister is missing again. I know. I just saw your father a minute ago. He asked me to be on the lookout." Hoisting his bedroll, Will shook his head. "If it's not one thing it's another with Viola. That girl's a passel of trouble sometimes."
To Rose, his tone sounded approvingalmost admiring. It galled her more than she cared to admit. As usual, Viola was audacious and attention-grabbing while Rose was a walking, talking, helplessly smitten deterrent to Faro-playing.
"Especially not since I have such an important question to ask you," Rose barreled on, determined to change the subject. She crossed her arms and arched her brow, trying to appear an adventuress in her own right. "You've been traveling with the show for three years now, Will. When are you going to stop keeping to yourself so much? You sleep apart, take your meals apart"
"Sometimes a man's better off alone."
"No one's better off alone. If only you'd try"
His upraised hand stopped her. "Right now I've got to try to find that foolhardy sister of yours."
He touched his hat brim, then headed off in the opposite direction. Rose was left with only the sage and leather scent of him, the fleeting warmth of his nearness and a desperate urge to bring him back.
He turned. The sunshine highlighted his jaw, outlining its strength and stubbornness. My, he was splendid. If only he'd look at her with a little of the dedication and possessiveness he applied to his work for the medicine show. If only he'd see her for the independent woman she was, instead of the tagalong Tillson she'd been when he'd joined them on the road. If only
"We could search for Viola together?"
He shook his head. "Not this time."
"I could" hold your hand, gaze into your eyes, say something witty so you'd smile again "make you breakfast?"
Her offer earned her another of his delectable smiles. "Burned biscuits again?"
"They're well browned," Rose pointed out with a lift of her chin. "Just like the cookery book says."
"Thank you, but right now your sister is more important." Will lifted his hand in farewell. "Stay on the lookout, Rose."
Watching him leave, his broad shoulders marching against those shafts of sunlight as he moved between the trees, Rose sighed. Your sister is more important. Wasn't that the story of her entire life? What did she have to do to make Will see her?
To make him, if she were lucky, fall in love with her?
Before Rose could reason out a solution, a noisy splash sounded from nearby. The creek! Had Viola fallen while crossing the flat stones used as a footbridge? Had she sneaked back to their camp only to be waylaid by a freezing watery fall?
Holding her wrap tightly, Rose ran toward the water.
There was a woman at the creek, but it wasn't Viola.
The unknown lady flailed her arms, struggling to regain her balance at the edge of Morrow Creek. She'd been recently dunked. Her gown dripped like a parasol shedding rainwater, its sumptuous blend of deep brown silk, black lace and ribbon trim most likely ruined, and her hat perched cockeyed near her chignon.
"Oh!" Rose hurried toward her. "Are you all right?"
Upon finding herself in company, the woman glanced Rose's way with perfect composure. Her face appeared beautifula bit more wrinkled than Rose would have guessed from the distance she'd first glimpsed her, but subtly powdered and rouged to make up the difference. The woman's mouth curled in a smile.
"I'm just fine. Thank you very much for asking. That blasted fourth stone trips me up every single time."
"It's a very slippery pathway."
"So they say." The woman's smile widened in an enigmatic fashion. Even as she wrung out her reticule, dripping water on the creek bank, she emanated sophistication and elegant comportmentas though she spent most of her time not in such rustic surroundings but in lavish parlors and drawing rooms. "Well, thank you for your concern. I'd best be on my way."
"But your hat is crooked. And you're soaking wet!" Alarmed at the woman's sopping stateand still a bit astonished to have met her so unexpectedlyRose tugged off her shawl. "Here. Take my wrap. It's quite warm." She tried to hand it over.
"Oh, no. I couldn't," the woman demurred. "But thank you."
"Are you sure? You'll catch your death of cold in those wet clothes." Concerned, Rose examined the woman, searching for signs of a shivering spell or chattering teeth. Fortunatelyand to her bafflementshe found neither. Still "Please. I'd feel much better if you'd take my wrap. I'll be fine without it."
She offered it again. The woman shook her head.
"Then would you like to come back to my family's campsite to warm up?" Rose suggested. "It's not fancy, but we could have a nice hot fire, lickety-split. And some good coffee to"
"I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I'll have to decline. I'm late to meet someone as it is, you see." As though it were a warm summer day, and her accident a mere inconvenience, the woman reached up to adjust her hat. Rose noticed a matted spot in the woman's hair, a place weighed down with leaves and mud. Before she could point out the issue, the woman added, "I appreciate your offer all the same. It's unusually kind of you."
On the verge of disagreeingbecause neighborliness was a natural attribute in her experienceRose felt a strange warmth steal over her. On such a cool autumn day it felt beyond peculiar. So did the way it made goose bumps rise on her arms. In its wake she caught the fragrances of tobacco and whiskey?
"Well, I'm off, then." Good-naturedly, the woman shook out her soggy skirts. She seemed not to have noticed anything amissbut she did appear to have arrived at a decision. "I'm Maude Brown, late of Morrow Creek and currently" she waved her hand "from hereabouts. I'm very pleased to meet you."
"It's my pleasure, Mrs. Brown. I'm Rose Tillson."
Rose reached out, expecting to grasp Mrs. Brown's hand in a handshake. Instead, her new friend pointed downward.
"You appear to have dropped something, Miss Tillson."
Rose glanced at the mossy, leaf-strewn ground. To her surprise, she spied a folded, buff-colored card.
Mrs. Brown must have dropped it without realizing, Rose decided as she bent, then opened the paper. Because she did not lead the sort of life typically littered with invitations to
"The Morrow Creek Hallowe'en Gala?" she read aloud.
"Oh! How wonderful! I adore fêtes." Mrs. Brown edged closer, reading over Rose's shoulder with keen feminine interest. "Who will be your 'and guest', I wonder?"
She glanced up, mouth pursed and eyes sparkling.
"Well, Will, of course," Rose said. Then she realized the foolishness of her declaration. She wouldn't be attending the Hallowe'en Gala with Will. She wouldn't be attending at all. "I mean, pardon me for prying." She offered the invitation to Mrs. Brown. "This must be yours."
Her new friend refused it with a shake of her head. "It's not mine. Perhaps you forgot about it until now?"
"Not likely." Rose pursed her lips. "My family's medicine show is always on the move. I've never even been to a proper party. I'm sure I would remember being invited to one."
"You have been invitedto this one! It's quite clear to me. After all, you're holding the invitation as we speak, my dear."
Intrigued despite herself, Rose followed Mrs. Brown's gaze to the invitation. She wished it had been meant for her.
"I'm sure there's more to it than mere possession. I couldn't simply appear at a gala unexpectedly."
"Nonsense. Fortune rewards the bold." Mrs. Brown did not seem ready to call quits to her efforts. "That's my motto."
"Well, boldness certainly rewards my sister," Rose couldn't help mumbling. Boldness had earned Viola the boon of Will's attention again and again. Today was added proof of it.
"See? Then you know what I mean," Mrs. Brown insisted. "When it comes to living, the only way to get a leg-up is to take chances. Otherwise fate gallops right on past you."
"I never take chances." And she didn't behave impulsively, either, Rose reminded herself. She sighed. "There'll be other invitations. As long as a person works hard and does the right thing she's sure to be rewarded sooner or later."
"Pshaw. How do you know you'll have a 'later'?"
"Everyone has a 'later,'" Rose said, thinking her new friend was joking with her. But one glance told her that Mrs. Brown was not speaking in jestshe appeared deadly serious.
"Sometimes there's only now," Mrs. Brown said. "This day."
Silently, Rose gazed at her. She felt an unusual kinship with the womana warmth and connection she couldn't explain. She felt as if Mrs. Brown understood her. As if that invitation was destined for her and she could be bold if she tried.
Rose lowered her gaze. "But we've finished in Morrow Creek. We're leaving first thing today. Just as soon as I find"