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Pearl Oliver stepped out of the carriage in front of Dryer's Hotel and glanced down the boardwalk in search of her cousin. Instead of spotting Carrie, she saw a little girl with hair as pale as her own. Pulled loose from two braids and wisping around the child's face, it glinted white in the sun. Pearl's mother had told her daughter that a woman's hair was her crowning glory. Pearl knew from experience it could also be a curse.
She turned back to the carriage intending to lift her son from her father's arms. Before he could hand the baby to her, she heard an excited cry.
Expecting to see another mother, she looked back at the little girl. What she saw stopped her heart. The child, with her pinafore flapping and a rag doll hooked in her elbow, was charging across the street. Behind her, Pearl saw a freight wagon about to make the turn. The girl hadn't looked before stepping off the boardwalk, and the driver wouldn't see her until he rounded the corner.
"Stop!" Pearl cried.
The girl ran faster. "Mama, wait!"
Unaware of the child, the freight driver shouted at the team of six mules to pick up their pace. As the beasts surged forward, Pearl hiked up her skirt and ran down the boardwalk. "Stay there!" she cried. "I'm coming for you."
Instead of stopping, the child ran faster. The mules gained momentum and the wagon swayed. Pearl cried for the driver to stop, but he couldn't hear her over the rattle of the wheels. The child, now halfway across the street, saw only the woman she believed to be her mother.
Praying she wouldn't slip in the mud, Pearl dashed in front of the mules, each one snorting and chuffing with the weight of the load. The driver cursed and hauled back on the reins, but the wagon kept coming.
So did the child.
So did Pearl.
She could smell the mules. Puddles, mirroring the clouds, shook as the animals lumbered forward. With more speed than she rightly possessed, she dashed in front of the beasts, hooked her arm around the child and pulled her back from the wagon. Together they fell in a tangle of skirts and pinafores with Pearl on her belly. Her knees stung from hitting the dirt and she'd muddied her dress.
She didn't give a whit about her knees, but the dress mattered. She planned to wear it to her interview at Miss Marlowe's School for Girls. A woman in her position had to always look her best. One wrong impression and she'd be worse off than she'd been in Denver.
With her heart pounding, she raised her head and looked at the child. She saw eyes as blue as her own and hair that could have grown on her own head. The girl looked to be five years old, but there was nothing childlike about her expression as she clutched her doll to her chest. Like Pearl, she had the look of someone who'd learned not to hope at least not too much.
Her voice squeaked. "Mama?"
"No, sweetie," Pearl said. "I just look like her."
The child's mouth drooped. "You do."
Pearl rocked back to her knees. Reaching down, she cupped the girl's chin. "Are you hurt?"
"What's your name?"
"Sarah with an H."
Pearl couldn't help but smile. "You must be learning your letters."
"I am. I go to school."
Pearl wondered if she attended Miss Marlowe's School, but other questions were more pressing. She pushed to her feet and offered Sarah her hand. "Who takes care of you? "
"Let's find him," Pearl replied.
Sarah looked at the ground. "He's gonna be mad at me."
Pearl had an angry thought of her own. What kind of father left a five-year-old alone on a busy street? The more she thought about the circumstances, the more irritated she became. Sarah could have been killed or maimed for life. Pearl's problems paled in comparison, but she'd just ruined her best dress. Pale blue with white cuffs and silver buttons, it now had mud stains. She had another dress she could wear to the interview, but she'd stitched this one with her friends in Denver. The love behind it gave her confidence.
As she looked around for Sarah's father, she saw the start of a crowd on the boardwalk. The driver, a stocky man with a bird's nest of a beard, came striding down the street. When he reached her side, he swept off his black derby to reveal a bald head. "Are you okay, ma'am? Your little girlI didn't see her."
She's not mine. But Pearl saw no point in explaining. "We're fine, sir. I saw what happened. You weren't at fault."
"You can be on your way."
He looked at Sarah as if she were a baby chick, then directed his gaze back to Pearl. "Pardon me, ma'am. But you should watch her better."
Pearl's throat tightened with a familiar frustration. She'd been in Cheyenne for twenty minutes and already she was being falsely accused. Memories of Denver assailed her the whispers when her pregnancy started to show, the haughty looks before she'd taken refuge at a boarding house called Swan's Nest. She'd gotten justice in the end, but she longed for a fresh start. When her cousin wrote about a teaching job in Cheyenne, Pearl had jumped at the chance for an interview.
Winning the position wouldn't be easy. As an unwed mother, she had some explaining to do. Not even her cousin knew she had a baby, not because Pearl wanted to keep her son a secret, but because she couldn't capture her thoughts in a letter. The two women didn't know each other well, but their mothers had been sisters. Carrie Hart was Pearl's age, single, a respected teacher and the daughter of one of Cheyenne's founders. If Carrie spurned her, Pearl would be adrift in a hostile city. Even so, she refused to pretend to be a widow. More than anything, she wanted to be respectable. If she lied about her son, how could she respect herself? And if she couldn't respect herself, how could anyone else? She had a simple plan. She'd tell the truth and trust God to make her path straight.
She had also planned to arrive in Cheyenne quietly. To her horror, a crowd had gathered and people were staring. She'd be lucky to avoid the front page of the Cheyenne Leader. Her father broke through the throng with her son in his arms. Even before she'd stepped out of the carriage, the baby had been hungry and wet. Any minute he'd start to cry.
"Pearl!" Tobias Oliver hurried to his daughter's side. A retired minister, he'd once been her enemy. Now he lived for the grandson sharing his name. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Papa." She touched her son's head. "Take Toby to the room, okay?"
"But you need help."
She shook her head. "I have to find Sarah's father."
As he looked at the child clutching her doll, his eyes filled with memories, maybe regret. Pearl had once shared Sarah's innocence but not anymore. She'd been raped by a man named Franklin Dean, a banker and a church elder. Her father blamed himself for not protecting her.
"Go on, Papa," she said. "I don't want all this attention."
When Tobias met her gaze, she saw the guilt he lived with every day. He nodded and headed for the hotel.
Squeezing Sarah's hand, Pearl turned to the opposite side of the street where she saw twice as many people as before, almost all of them men. She couldn't stand the thought of shouldering her way through the crowd. Most of the onlookers were gawking.
"Please," she said. "Let us pass."
A businessman removed his hat and bowed. A cowboy tried to step back, but the crowd behind him pressed forward. A third man whistled his appreciation and another howled like a coyote. She turned to go in the other direction, but another crowd had gathered. She heard more catcalls, another whistle.
Sarah buried her face against Pearl's muddy skirt and clutched the folds. The child didn't like being the object of so much attention especially after falling in the dirt. Neither did Pearl. She patted the girl's head and mumbled assurances she didn't feel. Her own breath caught in her throat. She had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. She was back in Franklin Dean's buggy, fighting him off . She whirled back to the first side of the street, the place where she expected to find Sarah's father.
"Get back!" she shouted at the mob.
The crowd parted but not because of her. Every head had turned to a man shouting orders as he shoved men out of his way. As he shouldered past the cowboy who'd whistled, Pearl saw a broad-brimmed hat pulled low to hide his eyes, a clean-shaven jaw and a badge on a leather vest. She judged him to be six feet tall, lanky in build but muscular enough to command respect. He also had a pistol on his hip, a sure sign of authority. The city of Cheyenne, fighting both outlaws and vigilantes, had enacted a law prohibiting men from wearing guns inside the city limits. Foolishly Pearl had taken it as a sign of civility. Now she knew otherwise.
When the deputy reached the street, his eyes went straight to Pearl. They flared wide as if he recognized her, but only for an instant. Pearl thought of Sarah calling her "mama" and realized she looked even more like the girl's mother than she'd thought. The man's gaze narrowed to a scowl and she knew this man and his wife had parted with ugly words. Loathing snarled in his pale irises, but Pearl didn't take his knee-jerk reaction personally. She often reacted to new situations the same way to crowds and stuffy rooms, black carriages and the smell of a certain male cologne.
The deputy's gaze slid to Sarah and he strode forward. When he reached the child's side, he dropped to one knee, muddying his trousers as he touched the back of her head. "Sarah, honey," he said softly. "Look at me, darlin'."
Pearl heard Texas in his voice and love.
The child peeked from the folds of her skirt. "I'm sorry, Daddy. I was bad."
"Are you hurt?"
She shook her head, but her father wasn't convinced. He ran his hand down the child's back, looked at her muddy knees and inspected her elbows. Apart from the scare, Sarah and her doll were both fine. Pearl watched as he blew out a breath, then wiped the girl's tears with his thumb. When Sarah turned to him, he cupped her chin. "You shouldn't have left the store."
He'd put iron in his voice, but Pearl knew bravado when she heard it. He'd been scared to death.
Sarah hid her face in Pearl's skirt. "I know, Daddy. But I saw a puppy."
The man frowned. "Sarah"
"Then I saw her." She raised her chin and stared at Pearl.
Instinctively Pearl cupped the back of Sarah's head. She'd been close to grown when her own mother died, but she missed her every day, even more since Toby's birth. If she'd ever caught a glimpse of Virginia Oliver in a crowd, she'd have acted just like Sarah.
The deputy pushed to his full height, giving her a closer look at his clean-shaven jaw. Most men in Cheyenne wore facial hair, but the deputy didn't even sport a mustache. He had a straight nose, brown hair streaked with the sun and the greenest eyes she'd ever seen. If her life had been simpler, she'd have smiled at him, even flirted a bit. Instead she pulled her lips into an icy line. Until she secured the job at Miss Marlowe's School, she didn't want to speak with anyone.
He took off his hat, a sign of respect that made her belly quake because she longed to feel worthy of it. The intensity in his eyes had the same effect but for different reasons. He frightened her.
"I can't thank you enough, miss." His drawl rolled like a river, slow and unstoppable. "I was in the store. I had an eye on her, and then " He sealed his lips. "The next thing I knew, someone said a child was down in the street."
Pearl knew how he felt. Toby had suffered a bout of croup once, and she'd been worried to death. Her heart swelled with compassion, but she blocked it. "As you can see, your daughter's fine. If you'll excuse me"
"But I owe you."
"No, you don't." She tried to step back, but Sarah tightened her grip.
The man skimmed her dress the way he'd inspected his daughter for injuries. "Your dress is ruined. I'll buy you a new one."
"No!" She could only imagine what kind of talk that would cause.
Instead of backing off, the lawman thrust out his hand. "Forgive my lack of manners. I'm Matt Wiley, Deputy Sheriff."
If she accepted the handshake, she'd have to give her name. She'd be trapped in a conversation she couldn't have until she spoke with Carrie and the school board. The less she said to this man, the safer she'd be. She indicated her muddy glove. "I don't want to dirty your hand. I have to go now." Before he could argue, she pivoted and headed for the hotel.
The cry came from Sarah. Every instinct told Pearl to hug the child goodbye, but she couldn't risk a conversation with the girl's father. Walking faster, she skirted a puddle and stepped on to the boardwalk. Thinking of Toby, her father and the new life she wanted for them all, she hurried to the hotel.
No way would Matt let Miss No Name walk away from him. He owed her for the dress and he always paid his debts. He scooped Sarah into his arms and settled her on his right hip. His left one sported a Colt Peacemaker in a cross-draw holster he'd worn for ten years. It had been a gift from Howard Cain, the confederate captain who'd welcomed a weary soldier into the ranks of the Texas Rangers. Matt had stopped being a Ranger, but he still liked the chase.
"Hold up," he called as he followed the woman.
Miss No Name ignored him.
Fine, he thought, she didn't want to talk to him. He didn't want to speak with her, either. She looked enough like his wifehis former wife, he reminded himselfto be her sister, except Bettina had abandoned her daughter and Miss No Name had ruined her dress to save her. At the very least, he intended to pay for the gown. She could have it laundered or buy a new one, whichever she preferred.
First, though, he had to catch her. He tightened his grip on Sarah. "Hold on, darlin'. We're playing horsey."
She giggled and nestled against his neck. "Go fast, Daddy!"