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Authors: Lisa Plumley

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Grace remembered. She hadn’t possessed the patience or skill for seamstress’s work, but had dearly coveted her own version of the scandalous garment. “You refused. Likely because you knew I would never be seen in a proper dress again.”

“That’s right. You would have worn those bloomers—scandalous or not—until they fell off you in rags.” Mama gave her a fond smile. “Since then, you haven’t asked me for a single piece of advice or help, Grace, no matter how strenuous or challenging the task before you.” Momentarily—astonishingly—she seemed almost proud. “Even when you were tossed into Sheriff Caffey’s jail, you never wanted us notified. It was a sore challenge to your papa, believe me. Especially that first time.”

“He came to collect me, all the same.”

“And I’m going to help you now, all the same.” Mama gave Grace’s hand an affectionate squeeze, then straightened to her usual regal stature. “Love is not bloomers, and you are not the same person you were at twelve. So I hope you’ll have a mite more patience when I suggest this to you.”

“I will.” Fervently, Grace nodded, feeling hopeful. She respected her mama’s judgment. She knew she would be grateful for whatever morsel of advice her mama had now. In all eagerness, Grace asked, “What should I do?”

“Stop trying to change Mr. Murphy.” Mama stirred her coffee. “A man is who he is, and that’s all there is to it. You have to take him as he comes and be happy for it.”

Grace stared. A moment passed, ripe with incredulity.

“That’s your advice?”

Her mama nodded. “I hope you’ll consider it.”

“That’s truly your advice?”

“It truly is. Believe me, Grace. It only sounds simple. At times I’m sorely challenged to follow it myself.”

This time, Grace did gnash her teeth. She could not believe this was what came of asking for help. Nonsensical advice and impractical suggestions, when what she truly needed were clever strategies and prudent measures. No wonder she had avoided it.

It was at that moment, as her teeth ground together and her mama regarded her patiently, that Grace realized the truth.

Perhaps she had overestimated her own ability to handle Jack Murphy, she thought in alarm. Perhaps she had bitten off more than she could chew. Perhaps she never should have agreed to care for him. Perhaps she never should have kissed him.

No, she decided. She couldn’t regret the kissing.

She couldn’t quite regret the caring either.

What was she going to do?

All amuddle, Grace stood and said her goodbyes to her mother. There would be no further help to be found here. But before she left…

“If you think of any other advice,” she said urgently, “please be sure to let me know.”

   

Despite the way she’d initially discounted it, Grace recalled her mama’s advice a few days later when she discovered something very unexpected beneath the bar in Jack’s saloon.

She understood what her mother had been trying to say, of course. Naturally it was better to accept people as they were. That was exactly the consideration Grace wished the people
of Morrow Creek would extend to her more often. But surely, had Fiona understood the potential inherent in the things Grace stumbled onto—and what they implied about Jack Murphy—she would have thought differently. Wouldn’t she?

Astonished at her findings, Grace sneaked a quick glance around the saloon. It was dark and shuttered, unlit except by the single oil lamp she’d carried from Jack’s quarters in the back room. She’d only meant to grab some brandy for a nightcap with Jack—a watered nightcap, of course—but instead she’d found this. An entire sheaf of papers, jutting from a cubby between the bar cloths and the extra tequila, just begging to be found.

Biting her lip, Grace looked over her shoulder. She listened. No rumblings came from Jack’s rooms. She’d left him grumpily perusing a Jane Austen novel, which she’d brought with a mind toward continuing her broad-mindedness scheme but which she had employed as an ordinary diversion instead.

Poor Jack seemed woefully bored of late, resentful of being kept still and hungry for the outdoors. He’d certainly told her often enough that he wished he were “out hunting bear” or “climbing a blasted mountain” instead of being cooped up.

The remembrance of that made her smile. She could not quite picture Jack cornering a black bear or scaling the territory’s northern peaks, but she had admired the winning way he flexed his muscles while describing those things. She had been most impressed with his imitation of a fierce hunter, too.

Confident he was still comfortably settled and usefully occupied with his reading, Grace again spread her hands over the papers she’d found. She held her breath, studying them. The first was a beautiful drawing, technical in nature, depicting what seemed to be a mechanical device for pouring whiskey.

The drawing held all sorts of numbered parts and diagrams. It included meticulously detailed views of the device’s workings from both sides, the front and the back. As much as she looked, Grace could detect neither a trademark symbol nor a patent notice. The image did not include a company letterhead or even the designer’s signature at its bottom.

Mystified but intrigued, Grace turned over the sheet to reveal the next page. It contained another drawing, this one of a device that seemed—to her untrained eyes—to be intended for use in a lumber mill such as Marcus’s. It featured pulleys and wheels and long-bladed saws in an intricate combination, along with the same multiple views the first drawing had shown.

Clearly, Grace reasoned, Jack possessed an admiration and an eye for art—one that had gone heretofore undetected. Otherwise why would he have saved these very inventive drawings? Most likely, they’d been left behind by a visitor to his saloon, and Jack hadn’t been able to throw them out.

Wiser now in the ways of Jack Murphy, Grace gave a perceptive glance to his bawdy over-the-bar oil painting. She suddenly comprehended that frolicking water nymph for the ploy she truly was—an attempt to hide Jack’s cultured side.

Smiling, Grace nodded. She couldn’t say she felt entirely surprised. She examined the water nymph again, satisfied with her conclusions. She’d known all along there was more to Jack than could be seen at first glance. Doubtless that explained why she pondered him so often herself…and why she found him so very fascinating, too.

The next drawing was of something familiar—a single fastener for a pair of men’s braces. Instantly, Grace could see it was cleverly designed, its features making it more durable and functional than most. It looked to be convertible, too,
although she couldn’t quite make out—no matter how she turned the drawing—exactly how such a marvel would work.

Something about its design niggled at her….

Pondering the matter, Grace glanced up, wishing she had someone to share her findings with. The saloon lay silent though, as it always did on Sundays. Even Harry was not in his usual place behind the bar. She would have liked to ask him about the drawings. They really were extraordinary. She’d only seen their like in books, never in person.

No wonder Jack had thought so highly of them. Appreciation of artistic talent was something the two of them had in common.

Carefully, Grace rerolled the papers. Then she collected a bottle of brandy and a pair of glasses, and headed back to Jack’s rooms. This time, she might add a bit less water to Jack’s nightcap…and learn a few more things in the process.

   

Deeply embroiled in the adventures of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, Jack didn’t realize Grace had returned until she clunked two heavy-bottomed glasses on the table beside him and added a bottle of his best brandy.

Instantly, he schooled himself into a deep frown and aimed his displeasure at his book, making his forehead wrinkle beneath its wrapping of unneeded bandages. Moving his lips silently, Jack pretended to struggle over the next passage—one he particularly liked under ordinary circumstances.

It would not do for Grace to realize as much, however. Jack still had his nonprofessorial western persona to maintain. For the sake of hiding his past, he had to appear rugged, rough and completely uninterested in things like literature—especially literature about men and women falling in love.

“Enjoying your book?” Grace asked cheerfully.

Jack grunted. He decided he might never surrender that useful all-purpose reply. It had proven far too handy to be laid aside.

After dashing to the kitchen for water, Grace drew a chair closer to the fire. Purposefully, she slid it nearer to him. As usual, she fussed over the maneuver, making sure the chair was evenly aligned and plumped before turning to the brandy.

Glasses and bottle clinked. Shortly, the liquor’s heady aroma wafted across the pages Jack still pretended to ponder. With Grace in the room, he could scarcely read at all. If he did, he inevitably became pulled into the story and was completely unable to maintain his pretense of reluctance.

Once or twice, Grace had even caught him chuckling over a particularly witty passage. Her sharp-eyed glance had been a warning he’d tried to heed ever since.

There was a rustling, then Grace sat. For a few moments they remained in place, Jack concentrating on moving his lips as absurdly as possible while reading—and sometimes grumbling—Grace waiting, plainly, for him to reach a stopping point. He could almost feel her impatience, buzzing from her chair to his like one of her damned dark-hooded, red-backed Juncos.

“Jack?”

“Hmm.”

“There’s something I want to ask you about.”

He closed his book, then lay it aside with a fairly good approximation of relief. “If it’s another vocabulary quiz, Grace, I’ve had enough. It’s late.” Also he meant to devote the rest of the evening to uncovering her romantic inclinations, a task he’d only accomplished a little of. “Why don’t we—”

“No, it’s about these,” Grace interrupted.

Her face shining in the firelight, she lifted a bundle from her lap. She leaned forward, alert with interest and curiosity… and a determination Jack recognized all too well.

Then he glimpsed the papers she held, and everything changed. The firelight brightened, the glass in his hand chilled, his breath stopped. For an instant, it was all Jack could do not to bolt from his chair and snatch them away.

“What about those?” he managed.

“Well, I found them by accident behind the bar, and I was wondering… Did a drummer leave them at the saloon by mistake? Or some other traveler? An inventor perchance?”

Uncomfortably, Jack remained silent.

“I can certainly see why you kept them,” Grace nattered on, gesturing, “but they look valuable to me. Someone is probably missing them. Perhaps I should post a notice in the
Pioneer Press?
I’m sure Mr. Walsh would agree that…”

She went on, but Jack could hardly listen. His whole body tautened as he clenched his brandy more tightly. Visions of his past unraveling in the pages of the town newspaper swirled before him. Remembrances of his very public debacle in Boston assaulted him, too. Before, publicity had cost him his reputation and livelihood alike. This time…

“Why would you do that?” he demanded.

Obviously taken aback at his abrupt tone, Grace hesitated. Her gaze darted from his brandy to his abandoned book. Then, evidently deciding he must still be grouchy from his enforced literature appreciation session, she brightened.

“In case we could return these drawings to their proper owner, of course. In certain instances, Papa even has the capacity to wire notices to other newspapers all across the territory. The country even. I’m sure he’d give permission to do so.” She glanced at the papers. “These are extraordinary.”

At her praise, the tightness in Jack’s chest eased a fraction. His past faded by degrees.

“Are they?” He made himself suck down the remaining half of his brandy. Its warmth spread through him. “Extraordinary?”

“Of course!” Grace shook her head as though unable to believe he’d find them otherwise. “Here, look at the detail. The richness of scale and quality. The surety of the strokes.” She beamed at the whole lot like a proud explorer. “Whoever drew these will certainly want them back.”

Warmed by more than his liquor now, Jack gazed at her in wonderment. This complicated things greatly, he realized. But somehow, he couldn’t find it in himself to be sorry. Not while Grace held his schematics in her careful fingers…not while she regarded the lot of them with such awe in her expression. Not even the widow Marjorie Lancaster, his most ardent supporter in Boston, had viewed his work with so much admiration.

A part of him felt glad Grace had found them.

Those drawings, it occurred to him with a surge of pleasure, were among the most genuine parts of him she’d seen.

“I haven’t examined them all yet,” Grace was saying, deftly laying aside the first two schematics. “I wanted to bring them back here where the light was better.” She bent her head over the next paper to be uncovered. “Ooh, look. This one is—”

She paused, her finger hovering over the paper. Her gaze skated from the drawing depicted there to his face, then back again. Her cheeks pinkened prettily.

“But this—” Looking confounded, Grace stared again. “I don’t understand. This bustle contraption with the lifting mechanism attached…the model for it looks somewhat—” Gamely, Grace tried again. “Well, I know it sounds absurd, especially since she’s holding a spyglass, but she almost seems—”

“It’s you.” Jack finished his brandy. He lifted the bottle and pointed it toward Grace. “Shall we have another?”

Chapter Thirteen

I
f not for the caution Jack had learned during his first hardscrabble days in the territory, he would have grinned unabashedly at the look on Grace’s face. For once, he had surprised her. Doing so felt better than…

Well, better than playacting at being incapacitated for the sake of staying next to her did, that was for certain.

She stared at the drawing. “It’s me?”

“Yes.” Hell, he might as well come out with it all. He’d come this far. “When I had the idea for the noiseless bustle buckler,” Jack explained, “meant for use by female ornithologists in the field who did not want to scare away…oh, let’s just say the dark-hooded, red-backed Junco, for example’s sake, you seemed a natural model.”

Grace’s gaze met his. She seemed wholly unable to speak. Her brow furrowed in consternation. “But this model—” she gestured to the paper “—is beautiful.”

Jack shrugged. “So?”

“So you are teasing me.” But her eyes said she hoped he wasn’t.

“Believe what you want.” Jack spread his arms, experiencing
a certain reckless freedom now that one of his secrets was out. “I know you will, no matter what I say.”

“Of course I will. But—but—”

He rose, gulped the remainder of his brandy, then set the glass aside. He scooped up the telltale drawings. “But you were never meant to find these. They’re a diversion, nothing more.”

The moment the papers left her lap, Grace recovered. She bolted upright, her gaze fastened on the bundle.

“I’ve seen you scribbling before.” She all but pounced on him as she considered everything she’d learned. “I thought you were wasting time, the way you’re prone to do!”

Jack arched his brow. “Wasting time?”

“You must admit, you enjoy far too much leisure as it is.” Grace watched with plain dismay as he rerolled the drawings. “Your whole life—your livelihood!—is devoted to pleasure. And you enjoy it far too much for a man of your position.”

“My position?”

“And your potential.”

“Potential?”

She paid his questions no mind at all, so fixed was she on the papers in his hand. “What are you planning to do with those?” Grace demanded.

This time, Jack couldn’t hide his grin—but he could turn away before she saw it. “Find a better hiding place.”

“No!” Grace followed him, clutching at his sleeve. “Wait. I haven’t even seen them all yet.”

“That’s just as well.”

“Please!” Impatience blanketed the word. “You can’t seriously think to keep those from me. After all this time, I have learned that you have a talent—an artistic talent just waiting to be nurtured—and you’re going to hide it?”

Thoughtfully, Jack gazed at the rolled papers in his hand. “Looks that way. Yep.”

She trailed him all the way to the kitchen table, heedless of the determined manner his boots rang across the floorboards. As pleased as Jack was by her interest, he had to be resolute. Nothing good could come of Grace knowing about his drawings—especially given her original intentions to publicize them in her father’s newspaper. The less she saw of them, the better.

What he’d said was true, Jack reflected. Those drawings—and the inventions they depicted—were only a diversion. They could be nothing more, not after everything that had happened in Boston. He had tried to resist drafting them. But he’d failed.

No matter how hard he’d strived to leave all his past behind him—giving away his fine suits, hiding his books, grunting and simplifying his speech—Jack had proven woefully unable to do one thing: quiet his mind.

It chattered at him night and day, tossing out notions for new inventions and improvements on the things he worked with and myriad wild ideas. It harped especially strongly whenever someone he knew encountered a problem and confided it in him—hence the schematics for an automatic log-splitting device for Marcus’s lumber mill and the silent bustle buckler for Grace’s ornithology club members, among others.

At first Jack had endeavored to ignore those urgings. But, like his pestering attraction toward Grace Crabtree, they had proven too fierce to be denied. So he had scribbled a few of them during slow times at the saloon, or late at night when he couldn’t sleep, and stuffed them all away in his cubbyhole. He’d never intended anyone to find them.

He might have known Grace would have.

Stubbornly beside him, she tried to wrest his arm downward, making the sheaf of papers rattle. “Just let me see them all first. I want to tell you if they’re any good.”

Jack almost took the bait. Instantly, indignation rose in him. Of course they were good. He might be a western man now, but once he’d been a very successful—no. He had to remain firm.

“The few I saw looked brilliant,” Grace coaxed as though sensing his indecision. “I had no idea you had such raw talent.”

Raw? Incredulous, Jack hesitated further. He cast Grace a measuring look, taking in her blooming cheeks, her bright eyes, her barely parted mouth. He remembered his plans for the night.

He decided to continue them.

“I’ll let you have another look,” he conceded, twisting his arm to hold his drawings behind his back. “If you can remember you want to view them at all…after this kiss.”

Her eyes widened. She recognized his challenge then.

“All right,” Grace bargained after a minute. “But you’ll have to tell me why I’m pictured in one of those drawings, too. In detail. And don’t tell me it was because I was beautiful,” she scoffed, “because I’m too sensible to believe it.”

An urge to argue struck him. Jack tightened his mouth against it. He did find her beautiful, in person and in ink. But there was no sense saying so. His hand-drawn rendition of Grace, outfitted in his noiseless bustle buckler, rose in his mind. He’d drawn her as the model because…because…

Damn it. Just because she’d been in his thoughts.

And often was. More than he was willing to admit.

And had been, for a far longer time than he’d say.

Not that those details would matter. Grace would never have a chance to learn them once he started kissing her again.

Assured, Jack nodded. “Done. Now let’s get you settled.”

He set aside his rolled drawings to a nearby kitchen shelf, noting Grace’s yearning glance toward them.
Extraordinary
, she’d called them.
Brilliant
. However unwittingly, Grace had admired the real him. The secret, wholly authentic him. For that, he decided, she deserved an especially worthy kiss.

“What are you waiting for?” she prodded.

He grinned. “Eager, are you?”

“Impatient,” she countered smartly. “Our nightly political discussion awaits, you know, just as it does every evening. I’d hate to see us miss such a lively experience, given how much it’s broadened your outlook already.”

“I’ll try to keep this lively then,” he promised. “Maybe it will prove a fair substitute.”

Jack found himself smiling, anticipating, even as he slid his hand to Grace’s cheek and stepped nearer. Her skirts brushed his knees, sober today in shades of brown and white, like cream poured into coffee. He tilted her face up, gazing into her eyes.

What he saw there spurred him further. Jack would swear his heart opened wide in that moment, however poetic and unlikely it sounded. “Ah.” He paused. “This is lively already, I’d say.”

Grace’s expression agreed. She leaned closer.

It was time. Jack’s mouth touched hers, and all the floorboards rocked. Sucking in her breath, her fragrance, her spirit, he spread his feet wide for balance.

Something about Grace set him akilter every time, making her the only solid thing in a world turned dizzying. Her warmth slid over him. Her hands touched his shoulders as she strove to tiptoe higher…nearer. Their kiss ended too soon.

Her dark gaze met his. She seemed bedazzled for a moment.

She smiled. “Now may I see your drawings?”

Jack shook his head. He refused to believe he was the only one affected by their kisses. He could not be. Not while Grace looked at him that way…not while she clutched at him so eagerly. He slid his hands to her waist, enjoying its subtle curve beneath his fingers.

“I’m not done yet,” he told her.

“Oh.” The firelight shimmered over her face, wrapping them both in a sultry glow. It made Grace look lovely, even as she furrowed her brow. “Perhaps we should enlist some parameters then. Exactly how many kisses do you intend to trade for a viewing of your drawings?” she asked. “Because I feel I could safely withstand—I mean, one or two seems more than fair.”

“I’m not interested in parameters.”

“Hmm. Well, if you’re curious, a parameter is defined as a fact or circumstance intended to restrict—”

“I know what it means.” Jack tightened his grasp and lifted her, setting her neatly atop the kitchen table. She squealed, but he paid no mind. “There,” he said in his gruffest voice. “That’s better. Now I can reach you properly.” He grinned. “Without your man-shoes, you’re just not as tall.”

Grace scoffed, her eyes wide. “This won’t do! You—your—” She gaped as he stepped even closer, directly between her skirt-covered knees. She appeared to muster a stern expression. “You have an unfair advantage.”

“I never said this would be fair.” Jack kissed her again.

This time, he coaxed open her mouth immediately, hungry for a deeper taste. Grace obliged despite everything, her hands closing around his ears. She tugged at his lobes, holding him steadily to her. It was an unusual approach, but effective.

“Why are you grinning?” she demanded, peering at him.

“Because you kiss the same way you do everything else.” He hugged her closer, his arms firm around her waist. “Bossily.”

For an instant, Grace looked offended. Then she smiled in an utterly brash manner. “I daresay you can withstand that.”

“You’d better believe I can.”

Jack kissed her again, pouring all his feelings—all his need—into giving Grace pleasure. He swallowed her breathy cries, welcomed the helpless squeeze of her knees against his hips, stroked her hair. All he wanted, all he needed, was to stay here exactly like this.

With Grace. Together.

Encouraged by her smiles, her whispered compliments, her free response, Jack pressed nearer. The table edge pushed at his thighs; a nearby peach tin rolled and thumped to the floor. Neither of them cared. He lost himself in Grace again and again, bracing his palm flat against the tabletop to support both of them. With a glance to Grace’s flushed face and closed eyes, he brought his mouth to her arched neck and kissed her there, too.

“Mmm. Delicious.” He smiled as she fluttered her eyelashes, then fisted her hand in his shirt to hold him close. He nuzzled her again, thoroughly enjoying himself. “You taste—” Jack sampled again, her smooth skin touching his tongue “—like everything I’ve ever wanted. Ah, Grace. You’re remarkable.”

Moaning sweetly, she trailed her hands upward. Her touch on his chest, his shoulders, was like a blessing. Jack could scarcely believe he found himself here…with Grace. Eagerly, she grabbed a fistful of his hair, tugging passionately.

“Oh, Jack! I don’t—oh, my.” She sighed, tipping her head back with abandon. She wiggled, making the kitchen table creak beneath her. “Please, you really ought to—I mean—”

He’d never known her to be at a loss for words. That she was right now gave Jack a fierce sense of protectiveness. Even gratitude. He doubted anyone had gotten this close to Grace before…and he knew no one had gotten this close to him.

“Ought to what?” he urged. The inquiry required all his effort. He only wanted to kiss her more thoroughly, to touch her everywhere, to forget every contention that had ever lain between them and savor this moment instead. Jack slipped his hand to her high-buttoned shirtwaist collar. Deftly, unable to help himself, he slid the top button free. “Tell me, Grace. Tell me.”

Another button came free. Then a third. Jack regarded the bare skin he’d revealed with reverence—and desire. He spread the gap wider, then kissed her there, making her gasp.

“Ought to do something about all this.” Impatiently, Grace wriggled on the table, her body arching upward to meet his. “I’m not sure—perhaps you’re not kissing me properly.” Her breath panted across his neck as she twisted his hair harder. “I feel as though there really ought to be more, Jack.”

He smiled manfully. “There is. I promise.”

“Oh.” Her hand roved higher, doubtless ruffling his hair beyond recognition. “Then I insist you should—”

All at once she stopped. Her eyelids popped open with almost comic suddenness. Tentatively, she probed at his head.

“Should do what?” Jack asked, feeling equally needful. He knew there was something about this kissing business he ought to have remembered, some purpose to it he’d set out with. But he couldn’t quite recall what it was. Also he seemed to remember having begun this evening with a plan of some sort, but that was lost to him, too. “Do what, Grace? What do you want?”

Something was wrong. Grace had quit squirming, quit sighing, quit tossing her head back like the sauciest of coquettes.
As much as Jack missed those things, he missed knowing she was with him—truly with him—even more.

Confused, he squeezed her.

BOOK: The Rascal
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