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Angel County, Montana Territory
Snowflakes hovered like airy dreams, too fragile to touch the ground. They floated on gentle winds and twirled on icy gusts. Not that she should be noticing.
"How long have you been standing here, staring?" Ruby Ballard asked herself. Her words were too small to disturb the vast, lonely silence of the high Montana prairie or to roust her from watching the beauty of white-gray sky and dainty flakes. They reminded her of the crocheted stitches of the doily she was learning to make.
"Your interview. Remember?" She blinked the snow-flakes off her lashes and hiked up the skirts of her best wool dress. Time to give up admiring the loveliness and get her head in the real world. Pa often told her that was her biggest problem. Could she help it that God's world was so lovely she was mesmerized into noticing it all the time?
"Focus, Ruby. You need this job. Badly." Enough that she'd hardly prayed about anything else for days, ever since her dear friend Scarlet had told her about the opening. She quickened her pace up the Davis's long, sweeping drive because Pa hadn't been able to get any work in town so far this winter and her family was desperate.
Ping! The faint sound was at odds with the hush of the flakes plopping gently and the crunch of her shoes in the snow. A very suspicious sound. She glanced around, but there was nothing aside from fence posts and trees. The wind gusted and knifed through her shoe with the precision of a blade. Fearing the worst, she looked down.
A spot of her white stocking clearly peeked between the gaping leather tongue of her black left shoe. Her stomach dropped in an oh-no! way. She had lost a button. What kind of an impression was she going to make when Mrs. Davis, one of the wealthiest women in the county, noticed?
Ruby hung her head. She would look like the poor country girl she was. Not that she was ashamed of that, but she didn't think it would help her get the job.
"Don't panic. Stay calm." First things first. She needed to find the button. How hard could it be to locate in all this white snow? It would surely stand out; she could pluck it up and sew it back on her shoe. Since this wasn't the first time this sort of thing had happened, she carried thread and a needle in her reticule for emergencies. Problem solved. Job interview saved.
Except she couldn't see the buttononly pure, white snow in every direction. There was no sign of a hole where it had fallen through. Nothing. Now it was time to panic. If she couldn't sew it back on, she needed to come up with another plan.
"Looking for something?" A warm baritone broke into her panic.
Ruby froze. She knew that voice. She'd heard it before when she'd overheard him talking with his family before or after church. She remembered that deep, kind timbre from the previous school year as he would answer the teacher's questions or chat with his friends during recess.
Lorenzo Davis. Her heart stopped beating. Her palms broke out in a sweat. The panic fluttering behind her ribs increased until it felt as if a hundred hummingbirds were trapped there, desperate to escape. What did she do? She straightened, realizing she must look like an idiot.
A snow-covered idiot. She swiped the damp stuff off her face and spun to him. Try to be calm, Ruby, she told herself. Be dignified.
"Ilostashoebutton," she said, the words tumbling off her tongue as if she were no more than a dummy. Honestly. The words had sounded just fine in her mind, but the instant they hit her tongue, they bunched together like overcooked oatmeal, and now she looked twice as stupid to the most handsome man in the territory.
Brilliant, Ruby. Just perfectly brilliant.
"Sorry, I missed that." Lorenzo tipped his hat cordially, disturbing a slight layer of snowflakes that had accumulated on the brim. He looked like seven kinds of dashing as he rose from his sleigh. He had a classic, square-cut face, impressively wide shoulders and enough quiet charm to send every single young lady in town to dreaming.
That was one thing she was not dreaming aboutLorenzo Davis. She might not be as well-schooled as her friend Meredith or as well-read as her friend Lila, but she knew a man like him would never be interested in a plain girl like her or one who could embarrass herself so easily. Not only did she have a button missing, but she had to explain it to himagainand pray this time she regained the power of speech, or he would think she had something terribly wrong with her.
"Oh, you have a button missing." He strode toward her, a mountain of powerful male concern. She'd never realized how tall he was before, as she'd never been this close to him before or alone with him. She swallowed hard, realizing there was just the two of them and the veil of the falling snow for as far as she could see.
"Do you have any idea where you lost it?" His deep blue gaze speared hers with something that could have been friendly, but it was far too intense. "It's a long way between here and your farm."
"Ah, over here." Thankful her command of the English language had returned, she felt silly pointing in front of her, where she had been looking when he'd driven up. His horse watched them curiously, blowing air out his nose and sending snowflakes whirling. "I'm afraid it's gone for good."
"I'm afraid you're right. You may have to wait until spring to find it." A slow grin accompanied his words. There was a reason most of the young ladies in Angel Falls had a crush on the man. When he smiled, good humor warmed a face that was already perfection and gave heart to his intense, dark blue eyes, the straight, strong blade of his nose and the hard, lean line of his mouth. His cheekbones were sharp enough to cut glass, and the uncompromising angle of his square jaw spoke of strength and character. He didn't need his heart-stopping dimples, but they made him mesmerizing. Incomparable. The most handsome man ever.
"I better not wait until April for a button," she quipped. "I should be going. Thanks for stopping."
"Sure." He tilted his head slightly to one side, as if he was studying her or trying to make up his mind about her.
So far, so good, she thought. She hadn't said anything that she considered inane enough that it would haunt her for days. She tightened her grip on her reticule, nodded good day and set out like the dignified young lady she wished she could be.
Ping! Ping! Shoe buttons went flying and plunked into the snow right in front of Lorenzo.
How embarrassing. Now her stockings were really showing, plus she looked like someone who couldn't afford sturdy shoes. Mrs. Davis was never going to hire her now. If she did, the woman might worry what other part of her new maid's attire would fail next. And as for Lorenzo, he had to be thinking she was the most backward country girl he'd ever seen.
"Got one." He bent quickly and neatly plucked something out of the snow. "Let's see if I can hunt down the other."
Mortified, she watched in horror. Dreamy Lorenzo Davis dug his leather-gloved fingers through the snow in search of her battered shoe button with the patience and care he would spend looking for a fallen gold nugget.
Don't think about the patch in your shoes, she told herself. She'd carefully repaired the hole on her handeddown shoes from the church donation barrel and had oiled the leather carefully. At a distance, they could have been new, but up close, they had clearly seen better days. She feared she looked as secondhand as her shoes. Definitely not in Lorenzo's class.
"Found it." Triumphant, Lorenzo stood, all six feet of impressive male towering over her, and held out his hand. There, on his gloved palm, sat her buttons. "Are you interviewing with my mother this morning?"
"Yes. Thank you." She plucked the buttons from him quickly, because she'd made her own mittens and they were a sad sight. She was only learning to knit and the uneven gage showed more than just a tad.
He didn't seem to notice. "I know she's looking for someone dependable. Her last kitchen maid eloped with the neighbor's farmhand without giving notice, so Ma is particularly miffed about that. Mention you are as dependable as the sun, and she'll hire you."
She slipped the buttons into her coat pocket. His advice was nice, but why would he bother? "You're giving me an advantage."
"Guilty. It would be nice to see a friendly face around the house. I miss everyone from school. Don't get me wrong, I love working on the ranch, but I spend more time with cows and horses than people." Those dimples deepened and held her captive.
Surely a sign of impending doom. She could not let a handsome man's dimples draw her in like that. What was wrong with her? She tried to hide her smile and stared at the toes of her shoes. She needed to repair her shoe in time for her interview. How could she do that while he watched? Surely, as nice and kind as he was, Lorenzo couldn't help drawing conclusions.
Well, she was never going to be as stylish as her friend Scarlet, endearing like Earlee or poised like Kate. She couldn't pretend otherwise. She could only loosen her reticule strings and fish around for the packet of needles and bobbin of thread.
"Let me drive you up to the house." His warm offer startled her.
"D-drive me?" She nearly dropped the buttons.
"It will give you time to sew everything on. My mother will never suspect." Kindly, he held out his hand, palm up, as an invitation. "You can sew while I drive."
Did his unguarded blue eyes have to be so compelling? Veiled in the snow, he could have been a western legend come to life, too dreamy to be real and too incredible to be actually speaking to her.
Don't do it, she decided. Her pa had raised her to be self-reliant. She was perfectly capable of walking the rest of the way. Besides, she was too shy to think of a thing to say to him on the drive. She should simply say no.
"C'mon. I'm not leaving without you. If you walk, I walk. Not that I mind, but Poncho might take offense."
As if on cue, the beautiful bay blew out his breath like a raspberry, making his lips vibrate disparagingly.
"See?" Lorenzo chuckled, and the sound was warm and homey, like melting butter on a stove. "If Poncho is upset, he will take it out on me all day long. You don't want that for me, do you?"
"No, as Poncho looks like a terror." The terror in question reached over to lip his master's hat brim affectionately. Even the horse adored him. "I suppose one short, little ride won't hurt. It's only so I can sew."
"Of course. That's the reason I asked." Lorenzo's assurance came quick and light.
He must offer rides to stranded young ladies all the time. He was a gentleman. It was nothing personal, which made it easier to lay her palm on his.
A current of awareness telegraphed through her with the suddenness of lightning striking. The sweet wash of sensation was like a hymn on a Sunday morning. A sweetness she had no business feeling, though it brought her a gentle peace. She didn't remember stepping forward or climbing into the sleigh. Suddenly, she was on the seat with him settled next to her and the steel of his arm pressed against hers.
How was she going to concentrate enough to sew?
"What happened to the horse you usually ride?" He snapped the reins gently. Poncho stepped forward, although the gelding swiveled his ears back, as if he wanted to hear the answer, too.
"Solomon threw a shoe, and I didn't dare ride him." She leaned forward to work on loosening her laces.
"It's a long way to walk. Three miles or more."
"I don't mind. It's a beautiful morning." Soft, platinum curls, fallen loose from her plaits, framed her heart-shaped face and fluttered in the wind.
"It's a cold morning," he corrected gently, but she didn't seem to see his point as she tugged off her shoe, shook off any melting pieces of snow and set it on her lap. He tried to think of a woman he knew who would walk three miles on a morning like this because it was better for her old horse. "You must really want the chance at the kitchen job."
"Yes. I'm sure I'm not the only one. Work is hard to find these days. Pa is always talking about the poor economy." She unwound a length of thread from a small wooden spool, her long, slender fingers graceful and careful.
Wishing swept through him as he studied her profile. Long lashes framed her light blue eyes. Her nose had a sweet little slope, and her gentle, rosebud mouth seemed to always hold the hint of a smile. The way her chin curved, so delicate and cute, made him want to run the pad of his thumb along the angle to see if her skin felt as soft as it looked. Every time he gazed upon her, tenderness wrapped around him in ever-strengthening layers. He had a fondness for Ruby Ballard, but he suspected she did not have one for him.
The sting pierced him, but he tried not to let it show. Never, not once, had he caught her glancing his way. A few times, he'd spotted her in town, but she was busily chatting with her friends or running her errands and did not notice him.
Then again, he had never been alone with her, and she was fairly new to town. She'd arrived late in the school year last year. He remembered the day. How quiet she'd been, settling onto her seat in the back of the school room. She hadn't made a sound, but he'd turned in his seat toward her, unable to stop himself. To him, she was like the first light of dawn, like the first gentle notes of a song and he'd been captivated.