AS KIT WALKED toward the Cameron’s wagon, a cannon-sounding rumble rattled the sky, and her feet literally left the ground. Was she tense or what? She hurried toward the music, passing a screen of willows. Her breath hitched at the sight of a man’s silhouette lingering between the trees and the river. When she reached the other side of the willows, he was gone. She glanced back to be sure she wasn’t followed.
Yes, she was tense. No doubt about it. Why would anyone follow her? No reason she could think of. It wasn’t like she was out walking in a dark and dangerous part of town. She tied her shawl around her shoulders and walked faster. She wanted to stop by her wagon first and change from boots to moccasins. Not that she intended to dance, but just in case.
If she had made a list of rules to follow, no fraternization would be number one. The Barretts were an exception, but they were the only exception. She screwed up last night when she invited Cullen to share a glass of wine, but she was curious about the man who resembled her ghost.
Another rumble, another shudder.
Close behind her, a growling voice demanded, “What are you doing?”
A double shot of adrenalin surged through her. She responded to the threat defensively with a donkey kick to the man's chest. Then she turned and prepared for a palm-heel strike to the nose, but her hand froze inches from his face. “Cullen Montgomery.” She took a deep breath to control her breathing. “That’s twice today you’ve snuck up on me.”
He groaned as if he’d been mortally wounded. “Why’d you kick me?”
“You scared me.”
“Why didn't you scream?”
“If you intended to hurt me, a scream wouldn’t stop you.”
He poked at his chest. “I think you broke my ribs.”
“Your chest is like a brick wall, and I didn't kick you that hard.”
“I’ve seen Japanese warriors do that move.”
“It’s called Karate.”
He looped his thumbs through his suspenders. “Mrs. MacKlenna, I find you perplexing.”
Was he hitting on her? Surely not. “Will you please call me Kit? Or is that improper?”
He laughed. “I don’t believe you’ve ever been governed by propriety.”
She feigned a gasp. “Why would you think that? Because you’ve seen me drink, curse, and walk off unescorted? I’ll have you know, I’m fully cognizant of socially appropriate behavior.”
“Maybe you are, but from now on, walk closer to the wagons.”
“Guards are posted.”
“It still isn’t safe.”
“I’ll bring Tate or Tabor next time. They’ve been known to bite and scratch.”
He shook his head. “You’ve lost your animals to the Barrett girls.”
Kit laughed and it shocked her. How long had it been since she’d had anything to laugh about? Weeks? And now twice in one day. “I don’t think even Stormy is safe. It wouldn’t surprise me to find Frances sneaking him out for a ride.”
When she was Frances’s age, she’d mounted a horse in the pasture for a leisurely ride. Normally, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but the horse she rode was a multi-million-dollar Derby winner. Her punishment was no riding for two months, which for an eight-year-old, lasted forever. She never knew if her father’s consternation arose from his concern about her safety or the horse’s. The remembrance was bittersweet.
Neither Kit nor Cullen said anything for a few moments while her laugher faded into the soft breeze blowing through the leaves.
The sound of a fiddler playing My Dark Hair’d Girl broke through the silence. “I told Sarah I’d meet her at the Cameron’s. I need to hurry, or she’ll worry.”
“I’m going there, too. I’ll walk with you.”
She wanted to say no, but what harm would there be in a short walk? It would give her a chance to tell him what she didn’t tell him the night before. “You followed me after dinner last night. I didn’t say anything, but you needn’t watch over me. I—”
“Can take care of yourself.”
“When you prove you can, I’ll stop watching.” He hooked her elbow, turned her toward the Camerons, and began to whistle.
“Violin Concerto in D Minor,” she said.
His eyebrows shot up. “Put your lips to work and join me.”
She caught a glimpse of his dimples. His remark was a double entendre. He was hitting on her. Watch out. He's probably a nineteenth-century version of a player.
They arrived at the Camerons where a crowd had already gathered. Firelight from pine resin torches unfurled and flickered, bathing the dark corners of the prairie’s dance floor in warm rose-gold shadows. One quadrille set was dancing to the music of a fiddle and flute. Three other couples stood by clapping, waiting for a fourth couple to join them to make another set.
“There’s Mr. Montgomery,” someone yelled. “He’ll be our fourth.”
Cullen turned to Kit “Do you know the Quadrille?”
“May I have this dance?” He whisked her onto the dance floor, ignoring her protests.
They formed a square with the other three couples.
The caller announced the steps, and they crossed over and started back to their original places. She missed a step, and he smiled. They returned to their starting position facing each other. She gazed into his eyes, soft and warm.
“Swing your partners, swing them around, swing them clear up off the ground.”
Cullen did as prompted, and she laughed, feeling her skirt swish through the air. The fragrance of wild flowers wafted through the air and the spongy buffalo grass cushioned her steps.
“Gents to the center, then back to your wall,” the caller yelled.
She’d never danced with a man over six feet tall. He had a light step and natural rhythm, and his warm hand on her back held steady and firm.
“Do-si-do and on you go. Promenade home. ”
The figure repeated four times before the caller called, “All chassez.”
Sweat dripped from her forehead, but she couldn’t stop dancing long enough to wipe it away. When she glanced at Cullen, a warm sensation passed through her. She was hot—inside and out.
They faced each other again then crossed over four times. He passed to her outside and back, then they finished with a bow and courtesy. He led her off the dance floor into the shadows of the sputtering light. “You have music in your soul.”
She panted, pulling more air into her lungs. “Music is my life.” His hand was gone now, but the heat of his touch lingered on her back.
“Bach must be the favorite part of it.” He pulled a handkerchief from his vest pocket and wiped his forehead.
“I do love Bach, but my taste in music is very eclectic.”
A young man wearing a sheepish grin approached Cullen. “My sister,” he pointed his thumb over his shoulder, “she’s standing back there, would like you to join our set.”
Kit wrapped a loose strand of hair around her finger, an annoying habit she thought she’d outgrown as a teenager.
Cullen glanced at a giggling, pug-nosed girl,. “Will you excuse me?” he said to Kit. “I need to do this.” He wore a pinched expression of one who’d eaten a sourball. When he offered his arm to his new partner, Kit's insides tightened, but she stayed rooted where he'd left her at the edge of the dance floor, watching. When he swirled the giggling girl, Kit turned to leave, wiping the feel of his warm, lingering touch from her back. But she was unable to erase the touch from her memory.
Stay away from him. He's a player—predictable and dangerous.
Stay away from him. He's a player—predictable and dangerous.