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By´╝ÜLeigh Greenwood

“Said you wouldn’t get nothing but scrubs,” Sulphur Tom cackled from the fringe of the crowd. “Peaches is the best of the lot, but she’ll wear you down to a nubbin inside six months.”

“Shut up, old man, or I’ll wring your neck,” Peaches threatened.

Sulphur Tom deposited a stream of tobacco juice at Peaches’s feet to show what he thought of her threats. When she charged after him, the crowd fell back, most of them laughing. Sulphur Tom danced beyond her reach.

“Take the foreign one,” Sulphur Tom advised. “At least she won’t talk back to you.”

“I don’t think any of you ladies would be happy with us,” George began. He couldn’t go back without someone to keep house for them, but he couldn’t hire any of these women.

“I’ll be content anywhere I make up my mind to be content,” Peaches declared, her expression belligerent.

“Ya,” echoed the Fräulein Huber.

George started over. “I’m sorry if I’ve inconvenienced you…”

“We’ll have none of your inconveniencing,” Peaches stated. “You advertised for a housekeeper, and we showed up. Now you’ve got to choose one of us.”

“We may not be what you was looking for,” the Widow Hanks added, “but we’re the only choices you’ve got.”

“He’s got one more.”

Chapter Two

“Clear off,” Peaches ordered. “He wants nothing to do with the likes of you.”

“You’re too late,” the Widow Hanks informed her.

“Ya,” added Berthilda Huber.

“Now, ladies,” Sheriff Blocker said rather nervously, “anybody who wants can talk to Mr. Randolph. This is a free country.”

“It ought not be. Not for the likes of her,” Peaches stated, dislike, or an even stronger emotion, flaming in her eyes. “If there was any law around here, she’d a been run out of town long ago.”

“I’m not afraid of you, Peaches McCloud, or of anything you have to say,” Rose said.

She looked so tiny standing between Peaches and Berthilde, her clothes shabby, her appearance tattered. She neither shrank from them nor seemed conscious of her lack of size, but faced George with a China-doll gaze that met his own without wavering.

George felt himself being drawn to Rose, and he instinctively cut his emotions off as clean as a sharp knife slicing through sausage. He had inherited that skill from his father. Though he tried to be like his sire as little as possible, right now he needed all his resources to withstand the almost irresistible lure of this woman.

“I hear you’re looking for a housekeeper,” Rose said. “I wish to be considered for the position.”

After having decided that Peaches would be the perfect choice, George told himself it made no sense to consider Rose. She appeared fragile next to the other woman, even frail. She couldn’t have grown more than three or four inches over five feet. Yet a trace of elegance hovered about her, which the other women lacked.

He had to turn her down. To be this captivated by his housekeeper was to invite disaster.

“I don’t expect you’d be any happier with the position than these ladies,” he began.

“But you can’t refuse me without even considering me,” she pleaded.

“Of course he can,” the Widow Hanks assured her.

“Are you certain you understand what’s required?” George asked, trying to give himself time to think. “It’s not much of a house, a dog trot I believe you call it, and there are seven of us.”

“I understand. It would be a contractual agreement. I would perform certain services in exchange for money.”

“Hussy!” the Widow Hanks exclaimed. “You make a perfectly respectable arrangement sound disgusting.”

“How’s her kind to know what goes on between honorable men and women?” Peaches asked.

“Ya,” added Berthilda.

Rose looked about her, frustration, impatience, and desperation taking their turn in molding her expression.

“Could we talk alone for a few minutes?” she asked George. “I have some questions of a private nature about which I need assurance.”

“I have no such questions,” Peaches announced.

“I won’t wait forever,” stated the Widow Hanks.

“Ya,” added Berthilda.

George told himself he had no reason to see Rose alone, that it would be best to put an end to things right now. But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to refuse her in front of this hostile crowd.

Besides, he couldn’t ignore the appeal in her big, brown eyes.

Yet it was something else that caused him to agree to her request. She had faced them all courageously, but fear hid in her eyes. It peeped out when something caught her off guard; it skittered across her face when one of the women tried to prejudice him against her; it danced wildly when he seemed to be about to refuse her request.