Deborah slowed the wagon and let the reins fall loose in her lap. She loved the crispness of the air. It was enticing, the collision of chill and skin-warmth, exploding with the scents of harvest. Fall made her feel younger than the calendar allowed her to believe. After the sweat, burns and aches of summer’s work, fall was a time of fruitful relief before the harsh embrace of winter blanketed the territory.
She jumped slightly at the male voice beside her. Simon, one of her ranch hands, was standing beside the wagon, hand outstretched to help her down. Deborah smiled and took it, though she hardly used the support as she hopped down. She alternately coddled and commanded her workers, and they responded with unwavering loyalty and a sort of filial protectiveness that delighted them all.
“Thank you, Simon, now get on with you.” She gave him a little push. “The dance will be starting soon and I’ve a feeling there’s a certain young lady you’re hunting.”
He tipped his hat respectfully before leaving at an eager trot. She shook her head at his departing figure, unable to resist calling after him. “You’d best remember you’ve got work at dawn. None of that late-night romancing, boy!”
Simon turned and shot her a saucy grin. “Don’t you be worryin’ about me, ma’am.”
Deborah’s husky laugh resonated in her chest as she waved him off. What did it matter if someone took offense to their banter? Seventeen years of tending that ranch alone had given her the right to handle her workers as she saw fit, to her mind. The gray at her temples proved it.
The hall was abustle as the ladies laid out refreshments and fussed over decorations. A lone fiddle cut through the commotion as its player set about warming up his fingers. Deborah brushed the dust from her cloak. She’d given up being considered respectable when she’d turned down Daniel Carson’s proposal all those years ago, but that didn’t mean she didn’t know when to trade her duster in for something classier. Tonight was a night for the fancy dress and a spray from the seldom-used perfume bottle.
Her strides kept time with the music as she made her way toward the punch. Once the dance proper started, the line would be continuous, and she was thirsty. It looked like some young people had congregated. She grinned in anticipation; they tended to understand her best.
“Josiah Parrish, is that what I think it is?”
The gangly boy hunched over the punch bowl nearly dropped the container in his hand as he turned to face her. “Miss Deborah! W-What a surprise seeing you here so early.”
Deborah pursed her lips and held out her hand. “The flask, sonny. Now.”
The flask was deposited in her hand, accompanied by titters from the group. The rotgut-stench reached her before she even raised it to sniff. “You should be ashamed of yourself, young man.”
“Yes’m.” Josiah’s voice cracked a little as he met the intensity of her gaze. “You ain’t gonna –“
“Tell your father? I oughta’ whip you myself and spare him the trouble.” Deborah let him stew for a moment. “I’ll keep this and think on it. Enjoy the dance.”
She took a cup from those already poured and sipped it gingerly, just in case.
“May I have this dance?”
Deborah managed to swallow in a lady-like fashion before turning to greet Daniel Carson. Now a 2-year-widower, with gray streaked amply through his hair, he still made her heart leap a little. She had been a fool.
“Well, I always dance with Toby first, you know…” She cast her eyes around for her foreman. Nowhere. “But perhaps …”
He took her hand and pulled her toward the forming sets before she could protest further. They were across the square from Simon and his lady, whose lively conversation contrasted pitifully with their silence. The music started and the opposing couples advanced, men guiding their partners forward for an exchange. Daniel’s hand tightened on her arm a moment before he released her to Simon.
“You look lovely this evening.”
She was so flustered she nearly missed Simon’s hand. Her head followed Daniel’s path, wondering at the sudden attention... She snapped back to meet Simon’s laughing eyes.
“You’d best be remembering you got work at dawn. None of that late-night romancin’, ma’am.”
Deborah grinned at him as she took Daniel’s hand to exchange again. “Don’t you be worrying about me, Simon.”
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