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"You're Priscilla Prescott?"
There was a man at the door, a very tall man wearing jeans and boots and a broad-brimmed hat and carrying a small child on his back, monkey style. The child peeked over one broad shoulder to smile impishly at her.
"Yes," Cilla replied, willing her cheeks to cool. "Yes, I am she." She saw the cowboy's face twist a little at her perfect grammar. At least she presumed that was what had caused the sudden tightness of the moutha very handsome mouth, she observedjust before he smiled again. A very handsome smile, too.
"Of the Blue Owl Montessori Preschool?"
"Yes," Cilla replied airily, desperately wanting to reach up and make sure she'd tucked all the flyaway ends of her hair into her quick elastic-secured bun. She'd been washing up her painting tools when the doorbell rang and had made the world's fastest change of clothing, whipping off her jeans and T-shirt in the tiny utility room and slipping on her sundress in less than ten seconds. It might be a potential student at the door, and she couldn't afford to miss even one. School started in another week, and any late registrations were more than welcome.
"Well, Marigold," the cowboy drawled, aiming his comment at the little blond girl clinging to his back with both arms around his neck and scowling now at Cilla through overlong bangs. "I guess we're here, honey."
"Hello, Marigold," Cilla said gently and smiled. She didn't step forward and offer her hand, as she would have done if the child had been standing before her. For her trouble, she got an even darker frown.
"Now, come on down, Marigold," the cowboy ordered. Cilla presumed he was the father of this ragamuffin. "Off!"
"Ain't going to!"
"Aren't," the man corrected with a sly glance at Cilla, as though to make sure she understood that he knew bad grammar when he heard it. "Sure, you are," he continued amiably, raising up with one large hand to grab the child. She scooted over to his other shoulder.
He made a great show of trying to grab her on his shoulder, then reached up and grasped the child by one bare foot. "Hagotcha!"
The girl yelled, then started to giggle. "Stop, you're tickling, Uncle Jeroo!"
Jeroo? Cilla watched with amazement as the man, who'd stand an inch or two over six feet in his stockings, clearly all muscle and sinew from a lifetime spent working with horses and cattle somewhere in the hills around Glory, plucked the girl from his back. He then held her upside down, gripping the child securely by both ankles.
The girl's face turned pink and she caught at her uncle's hands. "Swing me, swing me, puh-leeeese!"
"Nope." The uncle shot Cilla a pleased grin and she did her best to look respectable. Concerned. Mildly interested. The way the director of the town's new preschool should.
She saw one of her newestshe hopedstudents hanging upside down, no shoes on, in need of a good wash and a hairbrush, giggling her little self silly.
Cilla suppressed a grin. "Come in, Marigold. Would you like to show your uncle the schoolroom?"
The man flipped the girl right side up and set her down, and she turned alert blue eyes on Cilla, who'd remained at the door. The girl pushed back her shaggy blond hair with both hands. "School?" she asked, her voice awed.
"Yes, this is the new school I'm opening here in Glory for little girls like you." Cilla smiled and stepped back.
"And boys?" the girl asked.
"Yes, little boys, too. Bring your uncle in and you can have a look around. Marigold's a very pretty name. I'd like to hear more about how you got your pretty name"
"It's a school, Uncle Jeroo!" the girl interrupted and marched inside. "Not a place for babies, so there"
The adults exchanged a look.
"Babies?" Cilla repeated.
"Her mother told her it was a nursery school. I guess Marigold objected. Nursery is what her ma calls the room they've got for the new baby at home," he said.
"Oh." Cilla was shocked to see bald interest on the man's face as they spoke. Interestin her. She held out her hand politely. "I'm Cilla Prescott. The teacher. And you're ?"
"Jeremiah Blake, ma'am, at your service." He doffed his hat with his other hand and bent slightly over her palm, as though he intended to kiss it, before she hastily pulled it away. As he straightened, he replaced his hat and grinned. A smooth, practiced, almost theatrical gesture.
"Marigold's uncle, I understand?" she said.
"That's right. Her ma and dadCal Blake's my brotherare away right now, and I'm taking care of the bean sprout out at the Diamond 8. I'm the ranch manager there." His cool blue eyes, rimmed with the blackest lashes she'd ever seen, met hers. Almost in challenge, she felt.
"I'd have thought you'd be too busy on a ranch to look after a small child."
"Oh, it's not just me, ma'am," he interrupted with a lazy smile. "There's me and the Pings, Georgie and his unclethey're cooking for me at present, since my cook took off and since my brother's shut his place down for a couple weeks' holiday. And then there's half a dozen hands in the bunkhouse, sometimes more, always somebody ready and willing to saddle up Marigold's pony when she wants him for a"
"Strangers?" Cilla frowned. She hardly thought a bunch of ranch hands were qualified to take care of a little girl.
"They're not strangers to me," he replied amiably. He took off his hat again, revealing thick, dark-brown hair. Almost black. Shiny in the afternoon sun. "Shall we go in, ma'am? Have that look around?"
"Yes." Cilla took a quick breath as she led the way inside. She didn't think for a moment that her cheeks were less flushed now than when she'd raced for the door.
Marigold was standing happily at the materials table, pouring dry cornmeal from one container to another, Cilla noted with pleasure. She'd filled the bin with cornmeal only this morning, to find out how much she'd need. The Montessori method of educating young children took a hands-on approach. Children were encouraged to explore their world with all the senses, at their own individual pace.
"Whew! I smell fresh paint."
Cilla tried a light laugh. If the townsfolk, including this man, only knew how much her new venture was based on a wing and a prayer. And she was the entire staff at presentjanitor, teacher, organizer, carpenter. "Actually, I've just finished painting the small room I'm going to be using to store supplies." It was more of a combined staff washroom, utility and supplies room. And it wasn't smallit was tiny.
"Uh-huh." Jeremiah Blake was looking skeptically around the schoolroom. Cilla hadn't set up the furniture yet, so boxes were stacked here and there. A world map covered one wall and a large calendar with September exposed hung on another. The squares on the calendar had no numbers. When school started, she'd practice the days of the week with the children and they'd put up the new number for the new day.
"How many kids you got signed up?" he asked, studying the room as he walked around.
"Thirteen so far," Cilla replied. "Will Marigold be attending?" she added, wishing she didn't sound quite so hopeful.
"Her ma says so. Her dad isn't crazy about the idea. Figures kids her age should play, not go to school."
"I see." Cilla felt her hackles rise. She believed every child should have every opportunity available, and that included socializing with more than a bunkhouse full of cowboys. "And are you of the same opinion, Mr. Blake?"
"Do I agree, you mean?" he asked with a grin. "Yeah, I guess I do. Although I don't have any children myself. I'm not married." He paused and looked at her, as though to let that fact sink in deeply. She felt her cheeks flame again. "But if I did, I'd probably prefer to see them running around catching frogs and making mudpies before I'd see them all dressed up to go to school."
"I see," Cilla said again, resolving not to get into an argument with Marigold's uncle before she'd even filled in a registration form. "Shall I take down a few particulars from you? I believe Marigold is content where she is."
"Sure," he agreed and took a step toward her. "Let's take down the particulars," he mimicked. "Oh, and Miss Prescott?"
"Yes, Mr. Blake?"
"Do call me Jeremiah. Or Jem."
"All right. Jeremiah it is. And I'm Cilla. I expect the children to call me by my first name. It's part of the equality and respect that is so essential to the Montessori program."
After that rather stiff little speech, which he appeared to follow raptly, she led him to what would be her office when school started. She had stacks of boxes in there, too, but she knew just where to find the registration forms. They could discuss the form in the classroom and keep an eye on Marigold at the same time. Cilla was acutely aware of Jeremiah, walking right behind.
He paused at the door to her office, which reeked of paint fumes. "Man, you've been painting in here, too." He strode over to the window and wrenched it open.
She looked up as she put her hand on a registration form. "I just shut that and locked it. I was going to leave soon."
"You don't need to worry about leaving a window open in this town. Nobody's going to break in."
"Is that a fact? Whatno crime in Glory?" She couldn't resist.
"Oh, we've got our share. But what's to steal in here?" He glanced around. "A bunch of pencil crayons?"
Cilla didn't reply. She left the window open and hurried back to the classroom, sitting down at one of the tiny wooden chairs. Very carefully, Jeremiah sat in one across from her.
There weren't many questions on her information sheet. She passed over a sheaf of papers for the cowboy to take home to Marigold's parents. There was a brochure explaining her school and its aims, some information on Maria Montessori, the Italian doctor and founder of this method of teaching children, a form for medical information.
"What's this?" Jeremiah held up one sheet, a pale yellow one.
Cilla wished he hadn't. "Er, it's a volunteer sign-up sheet. I'm hoping the parents will sign up for various jobs that need doing around the school."
"What sort of jobs?" He looked interested. Too interested.
"Oh, mowing the grass, keeping up the playground, helping me cut out materials, weekend work bees, that sort of thing." Cilla was embarrassed, although she knew she shouldn't be. She even had a proposal for a charity auction in the middle of September with another Glory arts venture, a new dance school.
She'd so hoped that she'd be able to run Blue Owl free and clear, but her capital hadn't lasted as long as her ideas had. The old building she'd rented had required a lot more updating than she'd planned on, and the furniture, mostly new, had cost a fortune. Like many preschools, hers would be forced to count on parent participation. As for drawing a salary, that would have to come later.
She'd received a small inheritance from her great-aunt and kept back part of it for living expenses, but that would have to last her until the school showed some profit. By Christmas, she hoped. All the rest of her money, money she'd begged and borrowed, had been plowed into the preschool.
She'd had no support from her family. Considering the way they'd scoffed at her initial plans to open a Montessori school, she figured she'd die before she'd ask for their help. The Prescott girls, in her parents' and grandparents' opinions, were born to learn French and German, to host marvelous parties, to draw and paint and arrange flowers. If they didn't marry a rich man, they were expected to marry a diplomat or at least someone in the foreign service.
Mary, her oldest sister, had gone along with it, marrying a man more or less picked out by their father, although Mary insisted she was in love with Talbot Potter. And her middle sister, Jeanne, had given up her nursing career at the request of her fiance, a stodgy Italian industrialist in glass fixtures or women's stockings or some sort of hideous manufacturing enterprise. They were to be married in November, and then Jeanne was moving to Florence. Cilla had no idea when she'd see her again.
Great-aunt Martina had left the three sisters each a modest legacy when she died the year before. Cilla's grief over the loss of her favorite aunt was tempered by knowing that she'd put her inheritance to a purpose her great-aunt would have approvedher own business. Martina von Schelling had married into money, as expected by the family, but her husband was already an old man when she married him and he died within ten years of their wedding. After that, she went into business for herself in Germany. She'd specialized in designing and producing outrageous fake furs and had been wildly successful. Her will had endowed various animal foundations and educational groups, as well as each of her nieces.
Cilla didn't know what Mary and Jeanne had done with theirs, but nearly every cent of her legacy had been spent fulfilling her dream of teaching young children in her own nursery school. She'd had the training, from a Swiss institute, and the experience, from her first Montessori teaching jobs in Ontario; now she had the means, as well. Her first task had been to settle on a location. Why she'd chosen Glory she wasn't sure, except that when she'd researched smaller centers in Alberta that lacked educational facilities for small children, Glory had seemed the likeliest of the list. It wasn't far from Calgaryshe thought she'd hate living in a small town if she couldn't escape to the city occasionally. But it was far enough that there was no question of her living at home, which her parents would have tried to insist on if she'd stayed in the city, even though she was nearly twenty-seven. Her father, a scion of an old London, Ontario, family who had moved west with his company's head office, a man used to money and a generous patron of the arts, was very protective of what he referred to as "his girls." He included her mother in that list. And her mother, a Swiss-born woman who'd grown up in Europe, was, in Cilla's view, extremely old-fashioned.