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Authors: Lisa Plumley

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BOOK: The Rascal
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It was obvious. Elegant. Perfect.

She couldn’t believe she hadn’t realized it before. Now that she had, it was as though he’d presented her the solution with both hands—however mucky they might have been with tobacco, tequila and temerity. Surely once Jack Murphy was fully transformed into a broad-minded egalitarian thinker, he would be bound to see reason—her reason—at long last. It was brilliant!

Craftily, she scrutinized him. Oblivious to her racing thoughts, he watched the passersby, probably plotting to snare her yet another hairy, smelly, or gangly potential husband.

Yes, Grace decided. Yes indeed. All the raw materials of a proper gentleman were there, albeit in terribly rough form. All she had to do was exert the correct persuasion with Jack, make available the appropriate influences…manage the whole endeavor with cleverness and patience and zeal. Which shouldn’t be too terribly difficult, she reminded herself. After all, cleverness, patience and zeal were her specialties!

Nothing could stop her now. With all the enthusiasm she could muster, she would turn Jack Murphy into a reasonable and quick-witted man—and accomplish that feat long before he could produce a marriageable suitor for her. It was faultless.

“What’s the matter with you?” He frowned anew, studying her face. “You look strange, all of a sudden.”

“Nothing at all.” She widened her eyes with deliberate guilelessness—a gesture she’d never before attempted. She feared it was a poor fit for her. “In fact, I’ve never felt better.”

Another grunt. “I don’t trust that smile of yours.”

“That’s quite all right, Mr. Murphy. Your trust isn’t necessary—only your cooperation.”

Then Grace patted his arm, straightened her hat and left him behind to begin her improving program straightaway. She had a man to enlighten and a saloon relocation to finagle—and the sooner, the better, to be sure.

Chapter Seven

“O
h, Lizzie!” Molly exclaimed, as chatty and exuberant as always. “What a beautiful wedding! I daresay I’ve never seen a lovelier bride. And your gown is absolutely exquisite.”

She brushed Lizzie’s sleeve with her fingertips, her mouth open in a circle of awe. Among all the women gathered around the new bride, Grace’s younger sister was by far the most effusive in her admiration, but then she’d always possessed an eye for fashion. Even now, while preparing for her and Marcus’s first child, Molly managed to appear effortlessly stylish.

Unlike a certain Crabtree woman who might be mentioned…

With an unaccustomed sense of self-consciousness, Grace peered at her own dress. Constructed of sturdy forest-green wool with plain white trim at the collar and cuffs, it was the fanciest item she owned. Unfortunately, it was also the itchiest, and it restricted movement in a most unreasonable manner. For anyone other than her friend Lizzie, Grace would never have appeared in public wearing it. Given the festive occasion, though, she’d decided to loosen her practical outlook.

She already regretted it though, especially feeling, as she did, foolishly trussed up…like a prickly green chicken surrounded by finer-garbed peacocks. Grace’s only consolation was that her skirts and stiff bodice and voluminous petticoats seemed to have bewildered her would-be suitors.

Doubtless they didn’t recognize her, because none of the marriage proposals she’d grown accustomed to had been forthcoming. Their lack was almost enough to induce Grace into tight-laced gowns every day. Almost. But not quite.

She did, after all, have her reputation to consider. People looked up to her, especially the members of her various clubs. As a woman who’d advocated female dress reform on several occasions, Grace didn’t feel right abandoning her views for the sake of looking pretty—or dodging her specious “beaux” either.

Despite the absence of fresh marriage proposals though, Grace noted plenty of frivolity in the air. All around her, the wedding reception proceeded in merry fashion. The Stotts had opened their home to most of Morrow Creek, it seemed, and their small living room and parlor were packed with well-wishers.

A trio of musicians played in the corner, competing with the hum of conversation and laughter. People milled to all sides of Grace, enjoying the refreshments the bride’s family had provided—some of them baked by Molly herself.

Reminded of her sister, Grace glanced up. Molly still chattered about lace trim and embroidery, fascinated by both. Feeling much less comfortable with the subject matter, Grace excused herself. She made her way through the parlor and arrived in a safe corner, clutching her cup of cider. She watched the partygoers, fervently wishing she had something useful to do. She should have volunteered to take charge of…something.

Grace was not good at leisure. Possibly because she’d deliberately avoided it, preferring activity to feeling alone. Unlike the rest of her family, she was far from adept at social occasions, unless they involved picketing, and heartily preferred a nice protest march to a frivolous dance.

Usually, Sarah kept her company at such events, the two of them identical wallflowers. But today Sarah was smiling on the arm of her new husband, Daniel. She wouldn’t be joining Grace to discuss a novel or decipher a metagram or meet a poetry recitation challenge—to name just a few of their favorite pastimes. Sarah wouldn’t be helping Grace hide her awkwardness.

Several moments ticked past, fraught with merriness Grace didn’t know how to take part in. From across the room, she spied her papa, having no such trouble at all. Clad in his best suit, Adam Crabtree beamed with joviality. He and Grace had spoken again about the newspaper’s editorship and had reached an understanding of late. Grace still felt less than elated about Thomas Walsh coming, but she understood the reasoning behind it.

As she watched, her papa caught her mama’s hand. The two of them danced to the fiddle music, Fiona laughing as they dodged parlor furniture and other partygoers. It was so like her parents, Grace considered with a fond smile, to be the first ones to dance. Doubtless they’d be the last to quit as well.

Scratching the back of her neck—an impulse spurred by her itchy gown—Grace craned to see Lizzie again. The new bride conferred excitedly with her husband, rising on tiptoes. She blushed as he whispered something in her ear. Their faces shone with joy, bringing a pang to Grace’s heart. As happy as she was for her friend, she still felt…a little left behind.

Which was nonsense, Grace assured herself. Honestly. If
she’d wanted a husband, she’d had plenty of offers to choose from lately! She was alone of her own choice. An unmarried woman of her own volition. Independent and proud and indisputably busy—especially with her plan to civilize Jack Murphy added to her already-burgeoning list of duties. No woman truly required more. The speeches and writings of Grace’s own personal suffragist heroine, Heddy Neibermayer, assured her of that.

With that recollection in mind, Grace put down her cider and made herself stroll the perimeter of the party, determined to make the best of things. She still felt lonely. But considering Heddy’s example, she decided that the very best remedy would be useful activity.

Perhaps she could seek out a few of her fellow ornithologists or women’s baseball league members and discuss their springtime fund-raisers. Or buttonhole Sheriff Caffey and engage him in a debate about appointing female officers to the town government. Or track down Jack Murphy and pair him with someone suitably enriching…someone who might put forward her refining plan without delay. Like a minister. Or a lady artist.

So caught up was she in her thoughts of a downstairs neighbor who neither grunted nor scratched, Grace barely noticed when a gentleman stepped into her path. Until it was too late.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry!” Embarrassed to have blundered straight into the man, Grace cursed her shoes. At Molly’s urging, she’d abandoned her favorite men’s brogans—the pair identical to Jack’s—in favor of delicate slippers. She had no notion how other women managed to move adroitly in the things. “I didn’t see you there. Please excuse me.”

“On the contrary,” he said. “It’s my fault entirely. I can’t imagine how I could have missed such a vision of loveliness as yourself.”

Oh, dear. She’d stumbled upon another potential suitor. This time, her ladylike disguise hadn’t deterred him at all. In fact, to judge by his eager tone, her itchy gown may have functioned as an incentive. Just one more reason not to wear it.

Resigned to deflecting yet another unwanted proposal, Grace glanced up. Past a fancy waistcoat, past a snowy shirt and velvety necktie, higher and higher until she reached an unfamiliar face. At the sight, her prepared refusal stuck in her throat. No man in Morrow Creek was this tall—save her brothers-in-law—and even well-suited Marcus Copeland didn’t possess the same kind of dapper elegance the stranger did.

Wearing a broad smile, he extended his hand. “Please forgive me. I fear I haven’t quite found my land legs after having departed the train.”

Invigorated and relieved, Grace accepted his handshake. He wasn’t another bumpkin eager to win free liquor. He only wanted to exchange small talk. That she could manage. “I haven’t had the pleasure myself, but I hear the rocking along the tracks is akin to being aboard a schooner.”

“Indeed it is.” He produced a lacy handkerchief and mopped his forehead. His eyes were kind behind his spectacles, his face youthful. “With fewer pirates, however, I’m delighted to say.”

Instantly, she liked him. It wasn’t often an unfamiliar person came to Morrow Creek, but this man was the epitome of culture and sophistication.

His educated speech and spruce dress reminded her of a drawing from one of Molly’s periodical magazines…magically come to life with stylish lines and sophisticated banter. She didn’t doubt he had many interesting stories to tell. She felt flattered that he’d selected her to share them with.

“Then let me be among the first to welcome you safely
from your journey.” Grace found herself smiling boldly. This must be one of Lizzie’s far-flung relatives or a relation of the groom. She had definitely underestimated the caliber of her fellow wedding guests. “I am Grace Crabtree.”

“Grace Crabtree?” The glimmer in his eyes suggested he’d heard of her. Likely Lizzie had written him about their work as typesetters. “Then I am doubly glad to make your acquaintance.”

Proving his words, the man swept into a bow the likes of which Grace had never seen, making her laugh. When he straightened, his stylish hair flopped to his forehead in a most endearing fashion.

“I am Thomas Walsh,” he said. “Your new editor.”

   

So long as the smooth-talking knuck with the sissy clothes and the overfriendly manner and the spectacles as big as teacups merely shook hands with Grace, Jack figured he could stand it. But the instant he actually lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed it, the moment she laughed with very un-Gracelike glee, Jack knew he had to do something.

Clearly, Grace was out of her depth. Never mind that the man had cheeks like a chipmunk’s and an overbite to match. He was obviously up to no good, and Grace—innocent, confounding Grace—was ill prepared to cope. She needed Jack to extricate her whether she realized it or not.

Determinedly, he strode across the room. Several times partygoers stopped to talk with him, partially blocking his view. The music swung into another quickly fiddled tune, making it impossible for him to eavesdrop on Grace’s conversation.

Hell. Was she still simpering and smiling at that pretentious twit? Or was she swooning, as she’d nearly done a few minutes ago? Jack didn’t know.

Getting free to go to her was a matter of a few hearty stomps, several manly grunts and—in one urgent instance—a gruff shove between two railroaders. Damnation! He had developed a rowdiness a real mountain man would have been proud of.

Suddenly, he broke loose between two cider-sipping ladies in old-fashioned wide gowns and spied her. Grace was staring up into the unknown man’s face, her eyes wide with what looked like speechless ardor. Had he actually struck her dumb? Jack wouldn’t have thought it possible. He hurried closer.

And nearly collided with them both.

Grace glanced up, startled. Her gaze swung from the stranger to Jack and back again. He realized—astonishingly—that he was nearly panting. Apparently, the trek across the room had been more strenuous than he’d reckoned on. Also the strategy he’d counted on devising when he got there hadn’t quite caught up with him yet. What the hell was he doing?

“Mr. Murphy.” Grace looked dazzled. “Please meet—”

“You promised me this dance,” Jack blurted.

She wrinkled her brow. “I did?”

Momentarily befuddled by her appearance, he didn’t answer right away. Up close, there was something different about her. Her gown? Her hair? He’d almost decided it was her hair—possibly those loose, unschoolmarmlike tendrils she sported so atypically—when Jack realized it was her expression. He’d never seen Grace appear less than one hundred percent certain about anything. Particularly anything relating to him.

Dismissing the aberration as the chipmunk’s influence, Jack stuck out his hand, palm facing.

“You did,” he lied. “I remember it distinctly.”

“You do?”

Jack nodded. Vigorously. Now that he’d embroiled himself, he meant to act to the fullest. The stranger looked on, doubtless disgruntled at the possibility of having the sole object of his attentions taken from him. The man opened his mouth to object, displaying those monstrous teeth. Jack decided he looked more donkey than chipmunk.

Still hesitating, Grace puckered her lips. Just this once, Jack prayed she would not be her usual contrary self.

“Indeed, I did. I’d entirely forgotten our dance.”

In a haze of relief, Jack felt her hand slip to his. He wasn’t sure how they arrived at the area cleared for dancing. Once there he pulled her in his arms and let instinct take over. Years of faculty mixers and Boston society events had prepared him for moments like this, but Grace had experienced no such training. She surprised him by stepping nimbly into place.

“Don’t look so astonished,” she admonished him as they turned. “I happen to excel at all things corporeal. I’m terribly agile and very fit. It’s because of all that protest marching, you see. And what is dancing, I ask you, if not another physical endeavor, meant to improve the heart and strengthen the limbs?”

Jack mustered up his best manly expression. “Dancing is an excuse to hold a woman close.” For good measure, he held her tighter, trying not to think of how well she fit in his arms. This was Grace Crabtree, he reminded himself. The thorn in his side since his arrival in town. “Nothing more.”

“Nothing more? Nonsense. Dancing is an exercise in coordination, in music appreciation and in social interaction. Really, Mr. Murphy. You must broaden your thinking.”

“I already have.” He’d broadened his thinking to include the notion of his troublesome neighbor looking feminine and
behaving gracefully, for one. She hadn’t even waved a single suffragette banner beneath his nose. “You’d be amazed at what I’m thinking right now.”

BOOK: The Rascal
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