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The place was on fire. Virginia whipped the wet blanket over her head and beat down on the last of the embers glowing along the blackened floor of the saloon. Then she swung again.
Her pulse was racing. When Colter had left his building in her hands, he'd hardly expected her to let it burn to the ground. No matter that he was taking his sweet time in coming back to it. The air had been freezing when he left and it was just as cold outside now.
All summer she'd expected him and here it was almost Christmas again. She'd put her brass bells on the piano with some red ribbons strewn around them for color and Danny had dragged in a small pine tree that he'd set in the corner. Everything had looked so fresh this morning and now it was all coated with gray.
The smoke stung Virginia's eyes, but she wasn't crying. She was too angry. Someone had deliberately doused the floor with kerosene and set it ablaze. She'd been in the back room putting some potatoes on to boil for dinner when she'd smelled the fire. Fortunately, Danny was still in school. Someone looking in the door would have thought everyone was gone. If they had been, then the saloon would have burned down for sure.
Virginia was just hearing the cries of "Fire" outside. Enough smoke had escaped into the winter air that someone down the street had finally noticed it.
She hit the smoldering floor one last time. She didn't know who would do this. She should go next door and ask Lester Duncan if there had been any strangers in town. Since Colter had closed his saloon, Lester's was the most likely place for a misfit to turn up. She couldn't believe anyone who lived in Miles City would set fire to any of itsbuildings.
She let the blanket fall to the floor so she could arch her back to relieve the mild pain that had come as she beat down the fire. When she thought about it, she really didn't want to face Lester today either. The fire would just make him more protective of her, which would probably lead to him asking her to marry him again. Then she'd have to soothe him with some words of comfort while making it clear she planned to follow through on her application to teach in the school in Denver.
A few months ago, she wouldn't have worried about dashing any hopes he'd had. But her feelings about him had been changing since he'd started bringing over the letters his sister wrote to him. He'd read portions of the letters to her. The affection between the brother and sister made Virginia long to be part of a family again.
And then the sister had mentioned that she looked forward to hearing Lester play Bach on the violin again. When Lester read what his sister said about the beauty of his playing, Virginia began to wonder if she'd found a man who could understand her. Her father would have approved of Lester. A man who could cause such rapture on any musical instrument was a man worthy of marriage. Maybe she should say yes to his proposal.
The memory of Colter's kiss, of course, had long since turned sour. Apparently, it was all very well for her to remain single while he romanced his Patricia—if he hadn't been married to the woman all along. Just last week Virginia had gotten a cryptic telegram from the man. "Arriving soon. Leaving Helena. Coming by wagon with Patricia. Many trunks."
Virginia hadn't even heard of the woman until the telegram came and she couldn't warm up to the sound of the name. Patricia. The woman was probably cold and critical. And well-dressed with all those trunks. Virginia hadn't felt stylish since she'd left the east coast. She now wore her hair in a simple bun and had given up her corset. Which, she just realized, was very fortunate. A woman in a corset wouldn't have been able to beat down a fire the way she'd just done.
Virginia heard the pounding of footsteps coming closer on the street so she walked over and swung the two doors wide. "It's all right. The fire's out."
She nodded a greeting as the men stomped inside and then, one by one, stared at the black scar on the floor. They needed to see it themselves. Most of the men were old customers so they had probably been next door in Lester's saloon. She recognized Petey and Shorty.
"Smells like kerosene," one of the men she didn't know said suspiciously. He had wide black suspenders holding up his wool pants and a beat-up Stetson on his head. He had the look of a miner about him.
Virginia nodded and wiped the hair out of her eyes. She'd have to rinse her hair for a week with rosewater to get rid of the smell of it. People said her blond hair was her crowning glory and she needed all the confidence she could dredge up to welcome Colter back to town with his Patricia.
The men just stood and stared at her and then back at the floor.
"You didn't do anything?" Petey finally asked. "On account of Colter coming back with this woman—"
It took Virginia a moment to realize what he was asking her. She drew in her breath indignantly. "Set a fire! Of course not!"
"Now, don't go getting upset," the first man said. "Petey was only asking because he's been thinking of calling Colter out when the man gets back. We've been talking, and it ain't right him leaving you like this and taking up with some fancy woman. You had a claim on him first. We're miners—we understand if you're stirred up mad. It is claim-jumping, pure and simple. Man or gold—it doesn't make any difference."
Virginia wished the fire had burned a hole in the floor big enough for her to hide in. She should have known the telegraph operator would spread the news that Colter was coming back and that he had company. "First of all, I have no claim to Colter. He's just my employer. He's free to marry anyone he wants. Just as I am free to marry anyone." She glared at Petey. The older man knew about Lester. He didn't approve for some strange reason, but he knew they might be coming to an understanding. "No one needs to call anyone out."
She didn't add that she didn't want Petey's death on her conscience. She'd grown fond of these old men during the past year. Even if Colter wasn't a gunfighter anymore, she had no doubt who would win a contest between the two men.
"Still, it ain't right," Petey repeated stubbornly. "A man can't leave his business with a woman and expect her not to get ideas. Now that your brother's gone, it's up to us to make sure you're treated with respect."
"A woman earns her own respect," Virginia said. She was only beginning to understand that herself. She'd learned a lot this past year taking care of Danny and giving a scattering of music lessons. "Besides, I'll do fine. You know I have plans."
Even though the men were not drinking at the saloon anymore, they stopped by to talk, especially around dinnertime. She always set a couple of extra plates around the poker table. She found the table did just fine for dining if she draped a cloth over it. She'd even convinced the men to eat with the proper utensils.
"We know all about your plans," Petey said. "And we're going to be at the church for the Christmas Eve service so we can applaud you and the Wells girls, but what if it just doesn't work out?"
Petey didn't need to say any more. Virginia heard her father's voice in her head continue the litany. What if you aren't good enough? You missed that note and your timing was off there. Do it better. It's not good enough.
She glanced over at the piano that stood in the corner of the room. She'd waxed it until it shone and kept it covered with a cloth so nothing would damage the top wood again. She liked the way the bells looked on it, too. She had not been able to bring a piano west with her, but she had brought her mother's treasured set of ten brass ringing bells, wrapped in linen and packed in her trunk.
"We must have faith," she finally said. She'd first heard about the banker's sister, Cecilia Wells, from his daughters who were her students. They were the ones who'd mentioned that their aunt was looking for a music instructor at her academy for young ladies in Denver. If Virginia wanted, they said, their father would contact his sister about Virginia. Of course, she told him to write.
All she needed to do now was to impress Cecilia when she came to Miles City to attend the Christmas Eve service. The woman remembered bell songs from a trip she'd made to England and had said she'd be happy to consider the performance as an audition for the position at her school.
"She's sure to want to hire you when she hears you and the girls play them bells," Petey said proudly. "I've never heard anything like it. The sound puts me in mind of home."
"Everything reminds you of home."
"But what I mean to say is that even though she'll want to hire you, maybe she won't be able to," Petey continued. "Maybe she will already have promised the job to someone else before she gets here. Or maybe she won't have money to hire another teacher. Or—"
"We just need to have faith," Virginia repeated. She refused to consider defeat. The echoes of her father's criticism had stayed in her mind all these years, but she had thrown herself on God's mercy. Surely He would help her get this job. It wasn't as though she was asking to be invited on some European concert tour. She knew she wasn't good enough for that. Her father had been right to say it. But she could teach children. She knew that in her bones.
"Well, if the school lady doesn't hire you," Petey continued. "Lester says he'll let you sing over at his place. He doesn't have a piano, but we can get a rousing song or two going. And we'll promise not to drink too much while you're working either."
"Thanks," Virginia murmured. But Colter had been right about drinking and ladies. The next step to what Petey suggested would be for her to lift her skirts and dance. She shuddered at the thought. This was how young ladies were ruined.
"We can even help you clean this floor up." Petey turned to scowl at the men behind him and they eventually nodded.
She looked around the main room of the saloon. Most of it was intact. She'd gotten to the fire before it spread beyond the middle of the floor. The tables were fine even though the big mirror behind the mahogany bar would need another good cleaning. And the walls she'd just washed were now slightly gray.
"It is a mess, isn't it?" Virginia said. And then she heard the door open again so she turned to look over her shoulder.
It was probably Lester. The winter sun was starting to set so it streamed right in the open door so she couldn't see clearly. She wanted to rub her eyes. It couldn't be. But there, standing in the middle of the doorway, was the last man she wanted to see right now. Fortunately, the men standing around her put themselves to good use and, quicker than she thought possible, she was hidden behind their shoulders and broad hats.
Colter hadn't expected to see half of his old customers standing in the saloon when he came back. The place was supposed to be closed. He looked over at the bar and saw there was no lineup of liquor bottles. He looked back at the men. They were all looking guilty, except for Petey who looked like he was going to erupt with something.
That's when Colter smelled the smoke. "What's happening here?"
The last thing he needed was more problems. He had enough of a challenge with Patricia. But he could see something was wrong. Then, as he watched, someone quietly pushed their way from behind the men to stand in front of them.
"I take full responsibility," Virginia said.
Colter's heart almost stopped. With her blond head held high, Virginia was beautiful. He hadn't remembered her being quite so breathtaking.
"I'd like to know your intentions." Petey stepped out from the rest of the men and walked around until he was standing in front of Virginia.
Colter looked at the man in surprise.
"Really, Petey, he doesn't need to—" Virginia said as she tried to step around the man.
It was obvious that Petey intended to stay in front because he took a step closer.
This could go on forever, Colter thought, back and forth.
He held up a hand. He'd had enough of people dancing around their opinions. It never made anything go smoother. "Let Petey talk." He turned to the older man who had been one of his best customers. "What's the problem?"
Colter wondered if somehow Petey knew where he'd been and the trouble he was bringing back with him.
"I need to know what you intend to do about Miss Virginia here, now that you're back," Petey said with some heat to his words. "She doesn't deserve to have her heart broken."
"My heart's not—" Virginia protested.
"Tell me the man's name," Colter demanded before he remembered he'd sworn off using his guns. Being a Christian was harder than it had sounded, especially when it came to a man dealing with his enemies. He'd find something to do, though, to make the man sorry he'd dealt unjustly with Virginia. His fists would work fine for a fool man like that.
There was silence in the room.
"Well," Colter demanded as he looked the men over. They might not be as bad as the scoundrel he intended to face down, but there wasn't a man in the room good enough for Virginia, himself included.
Then Colter glanced at Petey and wondered what he was missing. The man's eyes were bulging out like he'd swallowed something with a pit in it.
"Oh, for goodness' sakes," Virginia finally said. She stepped around the older man and looked Colter straight in the eye with a snap of annoyance he found rather endearing. "They think it's you."
"Me? What'd I do?"
"Well, you up and got married," Petey stammered, finding his voice finally. "A woman like Virginia naturally expected—"
"I'm not married." Colter heard Petey talking, but he kept his eyes on Virginia. She had turned pink and it was the most beautiful sight he'd ever seen. It was too bad about the two of them. He had hoped to be back months ago while the memory of that kiss would be fresh in her mind. Now, of course, everything was different.
"What about your Patricia?" Petey finally finished.