Lou McCloud was a mask she wore. Not an ordinary mask that covered her face, but a disguise that covered her entire body. So why was it hundreds of times harder to wear a dress and stand in the midst of the same Sweetwater folk she'd passed on the street day after day for months?
"Oh dear," someone bumped into her a little too hard and Lou turned to see the not-so-shocked expression of Sybil Tanner hovering near her shoulder as her partner paused for a moment of the dance, "it is ever so hard to find room to dance in this small room."
Lou just smiled weakly in return and Sybil was gone a moment later, swallowed up in the crowd of crinolines and crepe.
It wasn't hard to hear the pointed tone in Sybil's words. Yes, Lou was standing against the wall and all the other young ladies were dancing, it wasn't hard to miss the jab.
The Express had a schedule to keep and half the boys were gone on the trail delivering mail. So Lou had made the choice to show up at the dance and take her chances. Cody was here, but she couldn't expect him to dance with her more than once in a given night as he always filled up his card with every pretty girl in town. Noah had taken a turn around the floor with her. Noah was one of the bravest men she knew, but still the open stares and muttered comments made it impossible for Louise to even think about taking the floor with him again.
Not for her own sake, but his.
Teaspoon had promised her the next reel and looking down at her card she realized she really had no idea when that would be, but really did it matter? Just a few minutes before she'd turned to the side and had been started by the young woman looking back at her.
It had been her own reflection in a window pane and still she'd barely recognized herself. The dress, sewn by lamplight over many nights in Emma's old kitchen, was modest and flattering, copied as it was from the pages of Godey's. Her hair was softly waved and finger-curled into a style that was feminine despite the woeful length. It was a pretty picture, but the face that looked back her in the window reflection was a stranger.
She felt the gentle tug at her wrist and looked down at the hand holding the edge of her dance card. "I know I'm late, but it looks like I didn't have to worry so much."
Her teeth bit into the inside of her lip as she stifled the sudden press of tears that threatened to fall. She had to consciously relax her muscles before she could talk. "Worry about what?"
"That you wouldn't save me a dance." He lifted a pencil and paused, looking up into her face. "You did save me one… right?"
She tugged her hand away from him and lifted her card to stare at the piece of paper, scrawled with a few names here and there. "I don't even know why I came," she began with a little shudder of self pity that only upset her more, "They don't even know me."
He looked up the crowd, watching the multi-colored swirl of skirts and shirts as the room seemed to sway in time to the music, and turned back to look at her with that easy smile of his. "True, but that's because folks in Sweetwater don't look further than the outside of a person."
It was the right thing to say, but that doesn't always make a difference when someone's feelings are tied up in knots. So he settled for stepping up beside her with the wall at his back and watching the crowd.
She didn't say a word, staring out at the crowd that seemed flow by without a single look in their direction. Her face was schooled, nearly blank except for the soft turn of a smile that seemed pleasant. Pleasant, unless you knew Lou… knew Louise McCloud.
"You want to go back to the station?" He had to make the offer, give her a way to leave if that was what she wanted. "I'll go with you."
She looked at him, his suit, and the odd angle of his string tie and knew that he'd done it himself. "You dressed up."
He nodded. "Yep, I did."
"Then you should dance if that's what you came for."
He heard the tightness in her voice, the barely hidden strain that said she was trying so very hard to put on a show for someone's benefit. "I'd like to, but I can't."
That got her riled. "Then do it, Jimmy." She turned on him, looking up at him with a little bit of flash in her eyes. "Don't stand here watchin' over me like I need someone to hold my hand."
He wanted to smile, but valued his life a little too much at the moment and opted for a simple shake of his head. "Can't."
"Why can't you?"
Lifting up the pencil he couldn't help the smile curving the corner of his mouth. "You wouldn't let me sign your dance card."
His words took the wind out of her sails. She didn't know what to say. "Maybe I… don't want to dance anymore."
"Fine. We can just stand here."
A gap opened up in the swaying crowd of townsfolk and Lou struggled with another thought. "What about Madeline Harper? She could dance with you."
Jimmy shook his head in a resolute gesture. "Nope."
"Why not?" Lou's exasperation was clear.
He turned slightly, leaning down to explain. "She's not that good at dodging my feet."
"Oh." Lou looked up at him. "And I am?"
His grin was immediate and infectious. "Best yet."
"So you're tellin' me you want to dance with me because I don't let you step on my feet?"
Shrugging, he stepped away from the wall and held out his hand. "Partly."
Narrowing her gaze at him, Lou set her hand in his and stepped into his loose embrace. "What's the rest of it?"
His hand rested lightly at the small of her back, pulling her just the slightest bit closer to him in the crowded room. "I like dancing with the prettiest girl in the room."
She blushed, her cheeks flooding with heat at the compliment. "Right, that's why only Teaspoon and the other boys will dance with me."
"Like you said," he drew her closer and smiled at the soft look in her eyes, "they don't know you… but I do. And I like what I see."
I stand before this faceless crowd
Author's Note: Inspired by - "Lost Together" sung by - Blue Rodeo… thanks to Liz M for the song and the beta