Sequel to 'A Way Around'
Louise McCloud came running trailing children behind her like breadcrumbs and as soon as they reached the school grounds the children ran into the yard, their fascination with the situation faded like their last lesson in geometry. Louise sent Buck for a pitcher of water and a towel.
He came back grumbling that she should have gone, since he'd never been in the back room of the school house before.
She arched a brow at him. "And what makes you think *I* have?"
He let out a sigh; he was letting too much slip out from his brain past his lips. "I guess, because you and Rachel are friends and-"
Taking the towel in her hand she dipped it into the water and rung it out. "You do realize how silly that sounds?"
Buck opened his mouth and took a step forward… then back again. "Yeah… I don't know… I'm just glad you could help."
Louise reached over and gently pressed the towel to the younger woman's brow, focusing at her temples. "She's pretty."
"Yes… what does that have to do with anything?"
Looking back over her shoulder Louise gave him a smile. "Just checking."
Buck's expression was pointed and stern, but the flush high on his cheeks was telling too.
"It doesn't really matter what I think, she's expecting."
With a practiced eye, Louise took a quick survey of the young teacher. "She told you?"
"Megan?" Louise wrung out the cloth and opened it up to swipe it lightly over her cheeks and neck. "That would be…" she looked back at Buck for confirmation.
"Megan," he looked out the door and pointed at the girl in question.
Louise tried not to chuckle as she shook her head. "You're taking the word of a little girl."
"She said she knew… her mother fainted just the other day and she's expecting."
"Right." Louise covered her smile as she bent back over the young woman and whispered. "Very pretty indeed."
"Excuse me?" Becca Garfield sat up rather unexpectedly and nearly bumped noses with the woman sitting beside her. "Oh dear! Who…"
Louise still had excellent reflexes and managed to avoid a rather embarrassing situation all the while planning on setting up another one. "Miss Garfield, my name is Louise. I'm an old friend of Buck here, he sent for me when you-"
"Fainted." Becca groaned and dropped her forehead into her hand, "you must think I'm an absolute ninny."
"I think you need to take a minute or two before you get back up on your feet." She set her hands on the girl's shoulders and gave her a smile. "And really, in this heat you should be more careful… in your condition."
The young woman blinked back at her, lashes flickering over deep blue eyes. "My condition?"
Louise smiled indulgently and nodded. "Yes, Buck told me that you were expecting a ba-"
"He what?" Becca fought off Louise's hands and struggled to her feet. "Why would he-" she turned around and stared at him, suddenly very focused and recovered, "why would you say such a thing?"
Picking up the basin of water and the towel Louise stepped back toward the door. "I'll just be outside for a moment."
Buck watched Louise walk out the door and longed to follow her. The shock and disbelief on Becca's face were powerful and he was worried they would quickly devolve to anger.
"I was worried about you and Megan told me that her mother-"
Becca nodded. "Well her mother is expecting a baby, I am not!"
"I… I'm sorry, Miss-"
Louise came back in the door carrying the empty basin with the towel draped over the lip. "The children are happy to know that you're awake and they're just waiting for you to ring the bell and call them back in."
Becca tried desperately to compose herself, but looking over at Buck she couldn't help but wonder what he thought of her. An unmarried woman expecting a baby? Goodness... her parents would keel over dead at the thought! Not to mention her own horrified thoughts. The tall livery owner was pleasing to look at, very pleasing if she allowed herself free rein to think on it, but what must he think of her?
"I thank you, Miss…"
"Louise, really," she returned with a smile, "and I was only too happy to come over and help you. Buck is a near and dear friend of mine and he was quite concerned about you."
"Concerned…" she slid a side-long glance at the man in question before turning to address him fully. "I thank you for your help as well."
Buck returned her thanks with a shrug, which only served to make Louise's smile seem brighter. "Well now, I won't keep you," Louise began, "but I was wondering if you would be willing to come to dinner at my home tonight. I'd like a chance to speak with you… it's been so long since I've made a new friend."
Becca wanted to shout the word, 'YES' but it wouldn't be proper, would it?
Louise continued on with a smile to her old friend. "Can't have it being an odd number can we?" She ignored Buck's pleading look and nailed him to the wall with her words. "We'll have Buck over as well and even out the table. Lovely." She moved to the door and called back over her shoulder. "Sundown. Buck can tell you where to find us, bye now!"
Left alone with the man that both infuriated and confused her she straightened her posture and took in a breath meant to compose her feelings. "Well, I suppose we're expected to eat… together."
Buck nodded. "That's what it sounds like."
"Can you?" She wondered aloud as she willed her hands to stop shaking. "Be seen with me?"
He swallowed noisily. "It's not like it's in the restaurant at the hotel." He knew the instant it was out of his mouth that he'd slipped his foot in when his brain wasn't looking. "That's not what-"
"You don't have to stay any longer, sir." Her words were clipped, her eyes lifted due to the stubborn tilt of her chin. "I'll find my way to their home tonight and you can feel free to slip in the back door rather than be seen with the likes of me." With that parting shot she stepped outside and reached up for the bell pull, calling the children back in. Buck barely escaped outside before the tide rushed over the threshold.
Louise sat Becca to her right and Buck across from her own chair, leaving Buck and Becca beside each other on the small square table. They were just passing around the tray of fried chicken when Louise gave Becca a bright smile. "I'm so sorry that Kid hasn't come home yet, he's usually on time especially when it's my fried chicken on the table."
Buck took the platter with a smile to Becca who ducked her gaze away from his. "Looks like if he's much later, he'll be out of luck."
Louise gave a little sigh. "If he's much later he'll be on my-" The door swung open and Kid walked in with a large burlap sack in his arms that made it impossible to see the area right in front of him, but somehow he managed to move along the wall without dropping the sack or knocking anything else over.
"Sorry, Lou, it's been a hell of a day at the store. Mrs. Perkins sent a load of things with me so you'd wash them and send them back, she could barely explain it to me there was all this talk goin' on about the new school teacher."
"You shoulda heard them." He groaned as he set the sack down in the corner of the room and straightened out his back slowly, "on and on and on about the girl helpin' at the school, seems she's unmarried and pregnant."
He turned and caught sight of the guests at the table. "Whoa… sorry about that." He gave them a little grin with red staining his cheeks. "Things at the store can be pretty boring and the talk keeps us awake. I should introduce myself just for fun, I guess. "He wiped off his hand and held it out. "I'm Kid… Lou's husband."
Becca stood, Buck echoing the movement as Louise glared at her husband. Reaching out her hand Becca struggled to turn the corners of her mouth up into the semblance of a grin. "I'm Rebecca Garfield, the pregnant unmarried teacher."
"Oh, no…" Kid's grin melted off his lips as his chin descended toward his chest, "I'm a… well, a…"
"You're sleeping downstairs if you know what's good for you." Louise reached for the basket closest. "Here have a biscuit and keep quiet for a few minutes while I apologize for you."
Becca stayed on her feet. "It's probably for the best that I just go."
Louise took the younger woman's hand in hers and shook her head adamantly. "No, I won't hear of it."
"I wouldn't want folks to think you're friends of mine and lump you in with me now that the rumors are spreading."
Holding her hand up for silence Louise addressed the room as if she was giving a speech at the State Legislature instead of her dining table. "First, no one is going anywhere until the pie that I have worked so hard to bake has been eaten and I've received compliments from all three of you." She arched a brow at the men in the room. "If you boys are good, you may even see two very wonderful women smile at you, so let's sit down and eat or you'll both of you, husband or not, be eating out in the yard."
Kid swallowed his pride and his shame and pulled out his wife's chair for the pleasure at eating at their table.
There was a light rain falling by the time they'd finished their coffee and although Louise entreated Becca to stay the young woman begged off, her gaze never quite meeting Buck's.
Louise knew she wasn't going to change her mind. "Then promise me you'll come back soon."
Becca clasped hands with her new friend and laughed when Louise pulled her into an embrace. Her laughter felt warm and free as it escaped her body. Her own family wasn't much for physical expressions of emotion or feeling, but here with her new friend, Becca felt a little happier than she had been since they'd moved out west. "I promise, Louise. "
She moved toward the door and reached for her coat.
"Here… let me help you." Buck held her coat open and with a lowered gaze and color blossoming on her cheeks she slid one arm and then another into her woolen coat. There was a slight chill in the air, but that didn't explain the shiver of static that rode her skin every where the lining touched.
As his hands released the coat to settle on her shoulders she turned and smiled at him, her hands reaching for her buttons. "Thank you, Mister Cross."
"Buck. You can call me Buck."
Her fingers fumbled one of the buttons, nearly pulling it off her coat.
He opened the door while she finished buttoning and waited on the step his elbow bent to the side waiting for her to take it.
Her fingers slid along the inside of his forearm a minute later as she stepped down to join him waving one last goodbye at their hosts. Buck felt a slight tremor go through her. "Are you cold?"
"Just confused." She shook her head and looked away. "Sorry, I didn't mean that. I mean, I did… just not at that moment." She sighed and looked up at him. "You're not seeing me at my best."
Buck looked down at his own feet; trying to pull his own thoughts together into some semblance of sense… it wasn't working.
The soft mist of rain fell over them in gentle curtains that seemed to settle down to the earth beneath their feet as they walked. There didn't seem to be a single thing to say. Nor was there any want to disrupt the quiet calm that had descended on them along with the rain.
Buck felt a smile tug at the corner of his mouth when her fingers flexed against his forearm as she leaned on him to avoid stepping into a rut along their path. He settled his hand on hers, covering her bare fingers with his own.
She lifted her face toward him, her lips parting slightly as though she was about to speak, but before a sound could be heard, the skies overhead opened wide and a downpour greeted her startled look.
Spying a couple of trees gathered together at the corner, Buck tugged her along after him making a straight shot run for cover. One of them started laughing sometime in the mad dash, it really didn't matter who, because by the time they got to the stand of trees they were shaking with silly fits of laughter.
In between gut-twisting guffaws, Buck somehow managed to catch hold of the tree trunk to keep him upright. Collapsing up against the tree trunk, the bark biting into her back, Becca pressed both her hands to her chest struggling to catch her breath.
Cracking an eye open, and then blinking away the rain that fell into her gaze, she looked up at Buck. "You're soaked!"
He swept the rain away from his face and looked down at her, rain drops still sliding along the brim of his hat. "You're no better off." He reached out his hand and wiped a raindrop off the tip of her nose. He held it up in front of her face and they both shook with laughter as the drop slid down his finger with the other rain drops that managed to get through the sparse canopy above them.
"That may be, but you still have a hat and my bonnet is going to fall apart if I don't get dried off soon."
Buck looked up at her bonnet and her words were unfortunately quite prophetic, the poor thing seemed to be suffering under the weight of the water, one of the silk blossoms wilting before his eyes. He reached out and picked the blossom from the hat and pulled it closer to inspect it. Pursing his lips together he examined the petals and nodded solemnly. "You're right. We should get you someplace dry before your arms or your nose falls off."
Becca grabbed for her nose and then started laughing anew. "You're horrible."
Buck's laughter sobered and he looked at her. "I am… I have been… and I'm sorry."
Her own laughter stilled until only her shoulders registered the mix of laughter and confusion swirling inside her. "For?"
He shrugged and looked away before meeting her eyes again. "For… the misunderstanding…" Becca stepped out into the rain as the drops fell more as mist than a storm and Buck followed along, "especially with the children-"
"They can and have been known to jump in headfirst into assumptions…"
Nodding then verbally agreeing, he kept up beside her, clasping is hands behind his back as they continued on. "Yes. And that's why I wanted you to know… that I shouldn't have… didn't mean to-"
Becca stepped up onto the boardwalk and turned to face Buck. "It's really fine, Mr… Buck." She smiled and fiddled with her coat as she stood there.
He stepped up into the shelter of the overhang and smiled down at her. "Thank you, Miss…"
Raising her hand to her lips she drew the crook of one finger against the curve of her bottom lip as she pondered the unspoken question. "Rebecca." She flickered her gaze to his for a moment before she looked out into the wet street. "But those that I know well, or perhaps 'wish' to may call me 'Becca.'"
"Becca." Buck said her name with a gentleness that seemed to shock them both. "Thank you."
"Yes," she breathed and turned to look at the door, "well, I thank you for seeing me home, Buck." She looked up at him and smiled a sudden brightening of the light in her eyes that caught and kept his attention. It kept his attention and set his mind on a new course. He'd intended to see her home and turn right around, but instead, with the empty street at his back and a beguiling smile playing on her lips he found himself unable to do anything but exactly what he wanted.
He leaned forward and kissed her right as the door opened up.
"Good lord, Rebecca Elena Garfield, what on Earth are you doing?"
Becca had only a second to register the change of the air around her when her mother snatched her into the warmth beyond the door and it slammed shut behind her. She turned to face her parents with a confused expression on her face. "Doing? I was saying farewell to a friend!
"Farewell?" Her mother's shrill scream could most likely be heard at the far end of town. "That's not what it looked like to me!"
Becca could only nod. She hadn't expected a kiss. Had barely expected him to look at her with anything but indulgence. Buck Cross was a puzzle to her… one she'd like to know more about, if her parents didn't send her to a cloister first.
Buck waited for a few long moments. Waited, but he wasn't sure what for. It might be an angry father with a rifle pointed at his chest. Or maybe, Becca would come back out and he could try to understand why he'd behaved… so strangely… so naturally.
He looked down at the silken blossom that he still held between his fingers and felt a smile tug at the corners of his mouth. "Becca."
He didn't hear or expect any sound in return, instead he felt the soft touch made by a drizzle of rain on his face as he walked back through town, his fingers reaching up to tuck the flower into his vest pocket for safekeeping.
The rain didn't bother him at all.