Authors: Penny Richards
Tags: #Historical, #Romance, #Fiction, #19th Century, #American West, #Western, #Christian, #Religious, #Faith, #Inspirational, #School Teacher, #Sheriff, #Lawman, #Widower, #Children, #Unruly, #Mother, #Wife, #Marriage, #Busy, #Frustration, #Family Life
“That mean old tattletale!” Brady cried, his voice strident with outrage. Cilla gave an unladylike snort.
“Let’s go sit under the oak tree,” Colt said, gesturing toward the shaded area. “Maybe the house will air out enough to go back inside in a bit.”
When they were settled beneath the gnarled limbs of the tree, Colt stretched out his long denim-clad legs and crossed them. Where should he start? He decided to approach the situation the way Patrice would have. The trouble was, he had no notion of how she might have handled things.
“It’s way past time the three of us had a talk,” he said, deciding to jump in feet first.
“About what?” Cilla regarded him with wide-eyed innocence.
Colt pinned her with a look that said without words that she knew what was coming. She dropped her gaze and plucked at the apron still tied around her waist.
“We need to talk about you and Brady and the fact that the two of you are gaining quite a reputation. And not a good one, I might add.”
The children darted glances at each other.
“First let me explain that my position in town is an important one. It makes me look bad when the two of you are mixed up in one unpleasant incident after another.”
“What does it mean that you look bad?” Brady asked.
“It means that the whole town thinks that I’m a bad father. They think I don’t care about you enough to teach you how to behave, and that I’m allowing you to be hurtful, disrespectful and destructive.”
“But you do care!” Brady cried.
“Well, you know it and I know it, but folks in town think I’m letting you grow up with no discipline and no instruction on how to be good people.”
“Is it?” he challenged. “Actions speak louder than words, son, and all they know is what they see, which doesn’t make any of us look good.”
“How are we destructive?” Brady asked.
Colt looked directly at Cilla. “Miss Grainger’s glasses are ruined. They can’t be fixed, so she’ll have to have new ones, and I’ll have to pay for them.”
Cilla’s gaze dropped to the hands clasped in her lap.
“And her hat was ruined in the scuffle.” He gave his daughter a look that said without words that he knew exactly how the hat had been damaged. “I’ll have to repay her for it and a new pair of gloves. The worst thing, though, is that she might have been hurt badly if her head had struck the corner of the counter.”
No one spoke for a while. Finally, Colt asked, “Do either of you even know
you do what you do?”
Cilla and Brady exchanged hangdog looks.
Cilla finally spoke. “When you come home at night and you’re in the same room with us, it doesn’t feel as if you’re really here,” she said, staring at the hands twisting in her lap. She glanced up and met his troubled gaze. “Sometimes it’s like you’ve gone off in your mind somewhere. When you scold me for something, you pay attention to me,” she confessed, looking up at last. “For a little while, anyway.”
Colt felt a stabbing pain in the vicinity of his heart. This was much worse than he’d thought. He attempted a light tone that fell far short of the mark.
“See? That’s what I mean. Everyone in town is right. I
pay enough attention to you. I need to change that.” He looked at his son. “Brady, why did you shove Miss Grainger?”
Brady stuck out his lower lip.
“Did she do something to upset you?”
“She said she was disappointed because I haven’t been reading this summer.”
“And so you pushed her?” Colt asked in an incredulous tone.
“Well, she should be disappointed,” Colt said, though the admission galled him no end. “I told her that I’d work with you on your reading this summer, and I haven’t been very consistent with it. It’s something we need to fix.”
“Pa! It’s summer,” the boy wailed.
“I understand that, but Miss Grainger is concerned about you falling behind in school. She wants your reading to improve so all your grades will get better. She told me that you get disrespectful when she tries to explain things to you, and you don’t listen. True?”
Brady nodded. “I don’t like it when she points out my mistakes in class. Everyone stares at me.”
Colt racked his brain for what their mother might have told them. “Behaving badly doesn’t change things,” he said at last. “You still feel bad and Miss Grainger feels frustrated. She has a job to do, and she’s doing her best to help you. If you don’t do your part, how can you expect to do better?”
The boy shrugged.
He turned to Cilla. “What’s your excuse for jumping into the fray?”
Her shoulders drooped. “I don’t know!” she cried. “I just get really angry sometimes, and I don’t have anyone to talk to about how I feel.”
Colt started to say that she had him, but they’d already established the fact that he wasn’t really there for her. “Explain what you mean,” he said.
Cilla gave a shake of her head, the loose dark curls, so like her mother’s, bouncing with the movement. “The girls at school talk about how they do things with their mothers, and it makes me sad and angry because I don’t have a mother to do things with. And Miss Grainger makes me madder than almost anyone, because she’s so sweet and happy all the time. She’s never sad. She never gets mad. Sometimes I just want to see if I can make her lose her temper.”
Colt could attest that the pint-size schoolmarm had a temper to equal anyone’s, but had learned to handle it...for the most part. Feeling like a total failure, he found himself wishing he’d never opened this Pandora’s box, but he knew he couldn’t stop now. There was still a lot to get into the open, a lot to understand.
“One more thing, and then we’ll talk about how we’re going to change things.”
“Sir?” they both said, sitting straighter.
“What about the bad things you’ve said and done to the ladies I’ve been squiring around town?”
“Who says we do?” Brady challenged, a belligerent tilt to his chin.
“I’ve talked to them all, and every last one says the two of you treated them differently when I wasn’t around. What about it, Cilla? You say you miss having a mother, so why do you try to come between me and every woman I show interest in? Don’t you want me to be happy?”
“We don’t want a stepmom!” Brady blurted. “They’re mean.”
“Who says?” Colt threw his son’s words back at him.
“Bobby Petty has a mean stepmother and mean stepsisters,” Brady responded, his expression grave.
Out of the mouths of babes, Colt thought. “It’s true that some stepparents can be unkind and unloving, but not always.”
When Brady didn’t answer, Colt continued. “Ben and Daniel Gentry both have new parents. They both seem pretty happy with the situation. Besides, do either of you think that I’d marry someone who didn’t care for you, or that I could even love someone like that?”
Brady shrugged. Cilla said, “She’ll have babies and you’ll like them better.”
Colt dragged a work-roughened hand down his face. “It’s true that I might have other children, but that doesn’t mean I would ever love either of you less. Love is something that grows the more you give.” Hadn’t Patrice often said as much?
Pinning them with a serious look, he said, “I want the two of you to listen to me. I do plan to marry someday, if I find a woman to love who loves us all, so you’d both better get used to that idea. Squiring a woman around doesn’t mean I’ll marry her, and doesn’t mean I won’t. Courting is a time when two people try to find out if they could be happy spending the rest of their lives together. So far, I haven’t found that woman, but if I had, and you’d driven her away, I’d be very disappointed in you. I’m onto your tricks now, so no more.”
“Yes, Pa,” Cilla said, her habitual look of innocence firmly in place.
“Okay,” he said. “Right here and now, the three of us are going to make a pact. I’ll do my best to be here for the two of you and you’re both going to stop behaving like brats. If you don’t, there will be consequences. Your bad behavior has to stop, and I mean from this moment on. Got it?”
Cilla opened her mouth to say something, but Colt reached out and tipped her head back, silencing her with a hard, unyielding gaze. “I mean it, Cilla. It ends right now, and I warn you not to try me on this. Now go wash up and comb your hair.”
“Why?” they asked in unison.
“We’re going to go to Miss Grainger’s house, and you’re both going to apologize for what you did.”
“Aw, Pa!” Brady cried. Cilla looked as if she’d like to argue, but for once, held her tongue.
“This isn’t negotiable. Now go.”
Cilla and Brady exchanged another stunned look and nodded. What on earth had gotten into their pa?
* * *
The first thing Allison did when she stepped through the door of her little house after leaving Ellie’s was to change into a faded navy skirt and a simple blue-patterned blouse that had seen better days. She left the top couple of buttons undone and rolled the sleeves up past her elbows. The pins holding her hair were digging into her scalp, so she took it down, ran a brush through it and covered the curly mass with a triangle of fabric to protect it from dust while she cleaned.
Cleaning was her cure-all for working through problems, sorrow or anger. She was out back, beating rugs that didn’t need it, when she saw the trio headed in her direction. Even without her glasses she knew who it was. Dismay skittered through her. Knowing it was too late to escape inside and pretend she wasn’t at home, she stood there, shoulders back, the rug beater clenched in her hand.
Was it her imagination or did the sheriff’s gaze linger on her exposed throat just a bit too long to be proper? Though she was dressed modestly, Allie felt the urge to hide from his piercing look.
“Miss Grainger,” he said, as he and the children stopped in front of her back porch.
“Sheriff. What can I do for you?”
Colt shifted his weight to one booted foot and hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. “I can see that you’re busy, so we won’t take much of your time. Cilla and Brady have something to say to you.” He gave the children a pointed look.
“I’m sorry, Miss Grainger,” Brady said. “It was wrong for me to push you. I didn’t think that you might get hurt.”
Allison saw genuine remorse in his eyes. Brady was not really a bad child, just a troubled one. “I accept your apology, Brady. We all act without thinking sometimes.”
“Even you?” he asked, looking up at her with a frown.
Allison thought of the way she’d stormed into Colt’s office with no thought but to give him a piece of her mind. “Even me,” she told him with a slight smile.
Cilla had yet to raise her gaze from the ground in front of her. Colt gave his daughter’s shoulder a nudge, and her chin came up to a haughty angle. “Sorry, Miss Grainger,” she quipped with one of her phony smiles.
“Priscilla...” The warning from her father was a low growl.
The girl gave a deep sigh, and the light of battle left her eyes. “I really am sorry, Miss Grainger. It was wrong of me to step on your glasses...and your...hat.” She gave a slight shrug. “I guess I was just taking up for Brady.”
The simple statement explained so much that Allison hadn’t understood before. In that split second, she realized that Cilla’s terrible conduct always came on the heels of an incident with Brady. It all made perfect sense. Cilla created a new calamity to take the attention from her little brother. While Allison couldn’t condone the girl’s actions, she applauded her devotion to Brady.
“I understand,” she said with a nod. “My sisters often fought my battles, too.”
With apologies made and accepted, she looked at Colt, whose face wore a bewildered expression.
“Well, we’ll let you get back to work now,” he said, placing a big hand on each child’s shoulder. “We’ll talk...later.”
Allison nodded. She would need to tell him this new insight into the situation. Surely it was something she could use to her advantage with changing Cilla’s attitude.
* * *
Colt was hardly aware of walking back home. His mind was still trying to come to terms with the picture of Allison Grainger without her prim-and-proper teacher persona in place.
He hoped he hadn’t made her uncomfortable with his staring, but wearing a simple skirt with a minimum of petticoats and an unadorned shirt, she looked nothing like her usual self.
He hadn’t been prepared for the pale perfection of her throat and shoulders or the soft contours of her bare arms, all spattered with freckles, as if someone had taken a paintbrush laden with gold dust and splashed it with carefree abandon over her creamy skin.
And her hair! Freed from the tight confines of her habitual knot and tied back with a scarf, the curly mass cascaded halfway down her back. Sunshine had given it a fiery, breathtaking radiance. He doubted she was aware how tempting the unassuming disarray was. And then there were the little spiral curls around her face that clung to her damp cheeks and forehead, just begging a man to brush them back....
Whoa! He caught his thoughts up short. What on earth was he doing, looking at the prudish teacher as a woman? Well, of course she was a woman, but she wasn’t the kind of woman he was interested in. He’d never been overly fond of redheads, except maybe for Ellie, and her hair was more auburn than red, and she was off bounds, so she didn’t count. Miss Grainger was his enemy, his nemesis. Well, maybe nothing so strong as that, but at the very least she’d been a constant irritant since he’d moved to Wolf Creek.
“What are you muttering about, Pa?” Brady asked, as Colt stomped up onto the porch.
“Nothing,” he snapped.
Cilla looked at her brother with raised eyebrows and preceded the men into the house. Colt gave them milk and sandwiches for supper. He helped them clean up the kitchen and told them to go to the store before it closed to see what Gabe might have for them to do to pay off their debt.
“What’s wrong with him?” Brady asked as they made their way down Antioch Street.
“I don’t know,” Cilla said, “but he sure is crabby.”
Colt was still crabby when he went to bed. He fell asleep along toward morning and dreamed of pressing his lips to each and every one of the freckles adorning Allison Grainger’s straight little nose.