Man wasn't meant to go to tea parties.
Nicholas Mackinnon was six feet, three inches tall. He weighed close to two hundred pounds. Balancing one of Miss Sukey Porter Merriweather's delicate china teacups on his knee wasn't exactly his idea of a good way to spend a cold winter afternoon.
"Well now, don't that beat all," Miss Merriweather was saying. "Come all the way to Texas to build a ship, you say?"
Nick nodded. He was afraid to do more, seeing as how he was feeling mighty awkward, all knees and elbows, as he tried to drink from a cup that couldn't hold more than a mouthful. Dern his hide if he couldn't spit and fill it up! He couldn't get his finger through the handle, yet holding something this delicate by the rim seemed mighty risky—and Miss Merriweather didn't look like she would take too kindly to having one of her teacups smashed by his big hands.
"Fancy! I've always wondered what it would be like to spend a few weeks on a sailing ship. Never rightly figured I would, though. There are just too many things that can go wrong with a boat, don't you think? I hear they're famous for springing leaks and such like. And what would I do if it decided to spring while I was on it? The way I see it, the Good Lord put me on dry land for a reason. If he had wanted me in water he would have made me a fish."
Nick thought about that for a moment, remembering the size of the whales he'd seen and how graceful they were in the water. Maybe Miss Merriweather should've been a fish. On dry land, as she put it, she was clumsy and lumbering as an ox. Nicholas didn't give two slaps for Miss Merriweather or her size, or even her precious teacups for that matter, but his mama had brought him up proper, and that meant being polite to his elders. On top of that, he doubted she would rent him the house if he broke anything. It was a bad habit with him, but once he got his mind set on something there was no turning back. "Stubborn as Pa," Tavis was fond of saying.
Tavis was probably right. Nicholas wanted to rent that house she owned, and he would sit here sipping tea from these silly cups of hers until the cows came home, if that's what it took. She was telling him that she had had a "most proper young man" by earlier to inquire about the house, and that houses for rent in Indianola were "as scarce as hen's teeth." Nick knew that well enough without her going on and on about it, and as for that proper young man, he could wait until hell froze over, but he wasn't getting Miss Merriweather's house.
Miss Merriweather sniffed to express her distaste for Nick's obvious lack of attention and spoke in an overly loud tone. "If you don't mind my prying, Mr. Mackinnon, why do you need a house in Indianola for just six months to a year?"
Nick looked at Miss Merriweather, her tightly laced bulk mounted upon a tiny rosewood chair as dainty and light as the one he was uncomfortably perched upon. With a voice of authority, and the self-confidence of a hurricane, she had asked him a question. The bulge of eyes, protruding from a flat face that was worse than plain, told him she expected an immediate answer.
"It takes a long time to build a ship."
She sat a little straighter and forced the rigid lines of her mouth into a shape that was probably as close as she could come to a smile. "Oh ... You build as well as sail. How lovely."
"Yes, sailing helps me design and build better ships. I guess you could say it's a policy of mine; I never release a vessel I've built until I've sailed her first—although I rarely take command of a ship."
"And where do you usually do your building? I ask because I know that although Indianola is the leading seaport here in Texas, it isn't exactly the shipbuilding center of the world."
"No, it's not. I have shipping interests with my brother and uncle in Nantucket. That's where most of our ships are built. But occasionally we get a request to build elsewhere, as was the case here." Nick was hoping this would suffice and they could get on to the business of renting him the house.
But rapt and radiant Miss Merriweather—who by this time had insisted upon Nick's calling her Miss Sukey, as most of the folks in Indianola did—was just in the first throes of gleaning information. The Ladies of Indianola Quilting Society was meeting tomorrow and she was determined to have enough information about this handsome bachelor (she considered a man's marital status of prime importance) to hold the attention of the society's members indefinitely. "I daresay it's a real shame to hear you'll only be living in Indianola until the ship is built.... Six months to a year, did you say?"
"Exactly. It's hard to pinpoint just how long it will take. So much of it depends on the availability of workers, the timely arrival of supplies, and, of course, the weather."
"Our winters are much milder down here than they are in Massachusetts, Mr. Mackinnon. I think you'll find the weather much to your liking."
"Yes, ma'am. I know that. I'm a Texas boy myself."
"Are you, now!" She scooted forward and the little chair creaked. Nick
was praying it wouldn't collapse. He had no idea how one would go about getting a woman of such tremendous proportions on her feet. The teacup balanced on Nick's leg rattled. "What part of Texas do you hail from?"
"Whereabouts in Limestone County?"
"I'm from a little place east of Waco, on Tehuacana Creek, called Council Springs."
"How on earth did you get to a place like Nantucket from Texas?"
"I went by ship."
That wasn't what she wanted to know, of course. She didn't care how he traveled as much as what prompted him to do so. There was no mistaking Nick's irritation with the way things were going—all these questions—but poor Miss Sukey, not being overblessed with perception, did not detect this. She perceived only that Nick had misunderstood her question, quite accidentally, dear man. She decided not to embarrass him by pointing out his misconception. Ordinarily she wouldn't have been so tactful, but he was here to rent her house, and it had stood vacant long enough.
"You mentioned you had a brother in Nantucket. Did he go there when you did?"
"I'm sure the two of you leaving at the same time like that must've upset your parents—"
"My parents are dead. Comanches."
Her hand came up to her throat. "Oh, how dreadful. There's hardly been a family that hasn't been touched by misfortune, in one way or the other, at the hands of those red devils."
"I would be inclined to agree with you on that."
"And now you're back in Texas. Strange how things work out sometimes. You just never know what's going to jump up when you least expect it."
Miss Merriweather rambled on like an old country road, twisting and winding around, going nowhere. Any other time Nick would've made his excuses and hightailed it out of there, but she had the only house for rent in Indianola. It wasn't that he begrudged her owning the only rentable house in town, but he'd have to seek lodgings in a boardinghouse if she decided against renting to him. Boardinghouses were almost always run by widow women or spinsters. He wanted nothing to do with either. He'd had enough widows and spinsters try to squeeze him into a marrying suit. It wasn't for him.
He liked women.
But he liked his freedom more.
It was trying, being a bachelor with so many marriage-hungry women about. But there hadn't been a woman in all his twenty-seven years who could hold his interest for more than forty-eight hours. He seriously doubted that the woman who could existed.
Two cups of tea and an hour later, Miss Sukey Porter Merriweather declared Nick the proud tenant of the house she had to rent.
"I'm mighty obliged, ma'am."
Before she had time to arm herself for another round, Nick grabbed his hat and coat and made his way to the door. But Miss Merriweather had encountered woman-shy men before. She collared him before he got the door open. "There's one more thing I forgot to mention. I don't allow no wild carrying-on, no loud parties, no ..." She had been about to say no women visitors, but a man that looked like he did wasn't about to swear allegiance to a request like that. Still, she had her principles to uphold, so she said, "I'm sure a nice, upright man like yourself would never consider having an unchaperoned woman in his home."
In answer, he tipped his hat, flashed her a smile, and slipped through the door.
The goose was following Tibbie Buchanan down the road as she headed toward town. It wasn't a friendly follow, either. Every time Tibbie walked a little faster, the goose did, too. Coming down the road like a parade in a hurry, they were getting a few strange stares from those they passed—and why not? It wasn't every day you saw a woman chased into town by an old gray goose and a trail of floating feathers.
The goose was still mad at Tibbie for picking up one of her goslings. Tibbie had long ago turned the downy little creature back to its mama, but apparently Mama wasn't appeased. Her long neck stretched out, her wings flapping to beat sixty, the goose was honking angrily as she closed the distance between them. For those who have never encountered the likes of a goose hot on their trail, there is nothing quite like it. A goose, when she is mad, is a formidable foe indeed. For this reason, Tibbie, seeing that the goose was gaining on her, started running, thankful that the weathered gray buildings of Indianola weren't too far away. Once in town, she was certain she could lose this pesky goose.
But a mad mama goose is hard to shake, and this mama goose was mad. Hearing the hissing honk behind her and feeling the draft stirred up by the angrily flapping wings, Tibbie ducked down a narrow alleyway that ran between two buildings. When she reached the end, the obstinate goose trumpeted her fury and spread her ruffled wings in threat. This drove Tibbie across the wooden sidewalk, where she leaped over the wagon-tongue protruding between two parked wagons piled high with barrels and crates. She stepped into the street.
After leaving Miss Merriweather's with a smile on his face, Nick flipped the shiny key in his hand a few times before dropping it into his pocket. He looked at the sun. Only a couple of hours of daylight left. He removed his pocket watch and flipped open the lid. Seeing he had been right about the time, he closed it with a snap and went immediately to the livery to buy himself a horse.
The leggy chestnut must have been as eager as Nick to get out-of-doors, for he took off down the street at such a fast clip Nick had a fight on his hands just trying to hold him to a nervous trot. The chestnut danced sideways, tossing his head, fighting to get the bit between his teeth so he could bolt down the street, and Nick, his muscles unaccustomed to being on land after months at sea, had his hands full.
He had no more than seen the woman, bundled in thick layers of somber brown clothing and a green cape, when he yanked back on the reins so hard the chestnut's neck arched as he pulled him aside. But she had already stepped between the two wagons directly in front of him. He felt the slight thump of impact just as the chestnut reared, the pawing forelegs frantically raking the air so close to the woman's head the curls around her face fluttered.
The breath slammed from her body as the horse's massive shoulder knocked her backward, Tibbie came close to losing her balance. Then she looked up, saw the size of the horse, and froze. Nick, fighting the animal for control, shouted, "Get back, damn you!"
She leaped back, clamping her hands over her mouth, a look of horror in
her wide eyes as she watched the chestnut rear again, the whirl, the man's leg slamming with a sickening crack against one of the wagons. Then, as quickly as it had begun, it was over. His horse under control, Nicholas stared hotly at the woman, fully expecting her to come at him screaming and shouting the moment she recovered. She had dropped her basket, spilling the neatly wrapped packages in the mud. He saw the way her eyes swept over him, lingering on the gold watch chain, the shiny new boots. As plainly as she was dressed, she would probably snatch the opportunity to demand retribution—monetary, of course. He had had that sort of thing happen to him before—more than once.
Nicholas saw the determination in her eyes and the stubborn thrust of her pointed chin, saw, too, the look of deliberate distaste the poor always had for the well groomed and more fortunate. The clanking sound of a cheap piano reached his ears, and his eyes were drawn to the saloon behind her. Had she come from there? Was she a housekeeper, or a woman whose profession charity forbade him to mention out loud? His inclination was to guess the latter. Why? He had no answer for that.
His hands were trembling, and his heart still pounded furiously from the thought that for all practical purposes it should be her lying in the street splattered with mud instead of her packages. The same charity that forbade him to mention her possible profession did not forbid him to lose his temper at the hostile way she looked at him. "Look your fill, damn you, and satisfy your curiosity."
He saw her eyes glance furtively around at the gathering throng of people, seeing, too, the shadow of panic that was born not of the danger she had passed so close to but of the fear of humiliation. He watched the woman turn and pick up the basket she had dropped, going down on her knees in the mud to gather her packages. Without looking at him again, she turned away.
What's this? he thought. Whores are not humble. He had obviously misjudged her. He watched her go, feeling a tightness in his chest. The easy flow of words normally so available to him deserted him. He nudged the chestnut to follow.
"You almost got us both killed. Don't you have anything to say?"
She turned and looked at him for a moment. "I—"
Whatever she was going to say was interrupted suddenly when a honking, flapping goose shot from between two buildings and headed straight for her.
Just about that time old Emery Enoch was coming down the sidewalk, swinging his one leg between two crutches. As the goose dashed in front of him, Emery lifted one of his crutches. "You varmint," he muttered, and gave the goose a chop to the neck that sent it tumbling. "That ought to rattle your slats a bit," he said with a raspy chuckle, then settled himself on his crutches and shuffled on by.
Walking like she didn't know which way she wanted to go, the goose wandered around in a dazed state until Karl Heist, the postmaster, chased her off with a broom.
Nick missed that last episode because his eyes were on the woman. Even bundled as she was, he knew his first impression had been a mistaken one. This woman was as fine as a glass of French cognac. The icy wind blowing off the water had pulled at the thick woolen muffler she wore over her hair and wound around the lower half of her face. Another frozen blast had loosened it enough for him to get a quick look at her before she hastily covered herself once more. Somehow he had a feeling her haste had been more to hide herself from him than to protect herself. It didn't really matter though, because in spite of her diligence, he had seen enough to interest him.
Her hair was a dark tobacco blond, the color of old Spanish doubloons, while her skin looked like it had been bathed in honey, and he was willing to bet it tasted just as sweet. When she glanced at him, the sunlight struck eyes that were as clear and golden as a string of polished amber beads that had once belonged to his mother. He had never seen a blonde with eyes that color. Blondes were blue- or green-eyed.
"You travel in dangerous company," he said, indicating the retreating goose.
She said nothing. Perhaps she was shy. Whatever the cause of her silence, he was determined to talk to her. She didn't look ready for a smile yet, so he kept his humor to himself. "A friend of yours?"
There were times to retreat, times to attack, times to remain silent, and times to placate. She had tried retreat and silence. Attack was out. So that left placation. Perhaps then the brute would be satisfied and be on his way. She glanced around. The crowd had lost interest and was diminishing. "Yes ... I mean Aunt Rhody is our goose," she said, her voice coming soft and muffled through the layers of wool. "It was my fault. I disturbed one of her goslings. She was just being a good mother."
He doesn't look too humored yet. Try apology. Try anything. Just get rid of him. Quick! "I was in a hurry. I should have been watching where I was going. I'm sorry if I inconvenienced you." There! That should satisfy even a pushy ogre like him.
His deep blue eyes studied her thoughtfully for a moment, then, with a nod in her direction, he made what could only be construed as a mocking bow. "It was entirely my fault, I'm sure."
If he saw the way her eyes were suddenly charged with anger, he did not acknowledge it. The harsh, clipped tones of his words had expressed the most terse civility, but there remained little doubt that he had effectively chastised her and in so doing had lumped her into the same category with the very young, senile, or mentally incompetent, while at the same time overriding her own apology. Anger boiled within her. Several years ago she would have tossed a clod or two at his arrogant head or given his horse a start by slapping her basket against its rump. But those options were closed to her. Things were different. Now she had to watch herself.
She noticed Miss Merriweather peering through the dotted Swiss curtains in the window of Milly's Marvelous Millinery, keeping her customary sharp eye on everything that went on, from hat purchases to bank robberies and everything in between. There were few people in Indianola who could intrude with such fervor into the things that went on around them and still find time to attend to their own rat-killing, but Miss Sukey Porter Merriweather could do a bang-up job at both. It could be said that Miss Sukey ran Indianola. And in the midst of all this running she frequently drove people from town; she had, thus far, driven thirteen people away from Indianola.
About six years ago Tibbie had come uncomfortably close to being number nine. She had no intention of being number fourteen.
When she did not respond, Nicholas did. "Don't stand there like a frozen lump, lass. You put a powerful tear in my britches; you didn't kill me." But the woman before him looked anything but relieved—or amused—at his attempt at humor. That didn't deter him. "So, you can see for yourself that everything is under control and I'm hale and hearty, and assuming you didn't harbor some dark wish to throw yourself beneath the pounding hooves of a horse, nothing has gone amiss. But I would advise you to pay a little more attention to what you're about. An ounce of prevention is well worth the effort."
He nodded his head in her direction, wondering if he had eased her feelings any after he had embarrassed her in a moment of flaring Scots temper. But the woman gave no indication of what she was feeling. She simply turned around and disappeared between the same two wagons she had stepped from only moments before. For some strange reason, Nicholas felt a tugging sense of disappointment that he hadn't seen all of her face or heard her voice without the hampering layers of wool.
He started back up the street, tying the chestnut to a sturdy post. A moment later he stepped into Twitwiler's General Store to purchase a few things he would be needing at the house he had just rented. While he waited for the proprietor to gather the items on his list, Nick warmed himself by the fire.
The door opened, sending a chilling blast of cold air into the store, the bell overhead clanging loudly when the door slammed. Nick turned, recognizing the woman immediately. For a moment he stood watching her remove her thick gray mittens, thinking she didn't look any friendlier than she had a few minutes back when he'd almost run her down. He was about to turn back to the fire when she began to unwind the long woolen muffler from around her face and head, dislodging the tightly coiled bun at her nape and spilling the most unbelievable length of rich, honeyed hair down her back. His eyes went to her face. The woman was undoubtedly a beauty. A thousand descriptive words jammed his brain: Incredible. Exquisite. Unbelievable. Absolute perfection. None of them fit. Not one word that came to mind seemed adequate, let alone descriptive of what he was looking at. The woman's eyes connected with his, ever so briefly, before she hastily looked away. Nick felt the breath drawn from his body. Before he could draw in another to replace it, the woman had twisted the shimmering length of hair into a tight coil and rewound it into a bun, thanking two young boys who had retrieved her hairpins from the floor and handed them to her. She jabbed the pins home and turned away.
He watched her move about the store, graceful and quick as a hummingbird, never lighting in one place long enough for him to get a really good look at her. It took him a moment to realize that this woman had to be accustomed to being looked at constantly, yet she seemed immune to it.
Only once did she come near him, to pause in front of an oak barrel and lift the lid. The scent of vanilla and roses lingered long after she had passed. He watched as she withdrew three scoopsful of sugar before reaching for the lid.
"Allow me, ma'am." Nick bent over and retrieved the lid, his face just inches from hers as they both came to an upright position.
The scoop fell from her hands, striking the floor with a clatter. She took a step back, then gained control, giving him a look a few degrees colder than the wind that howled around the small store. "Do you live around here?" he asked, watching her bite her lip as if he had just put an extremely difficult question to her. He laughed. "A simple yes or no will suffice."
"Please don't force me to embarrass you by calling Mr. Ridley to throw you out," she said.
"I've been thrown out of places before ... a lot worse than this," he said. "Enough times that I'm afraid I'm beyond being embarrassed. But you might consider that in all likelihood it would be yourself that would be embarrassed." A brief smile touched his mouth, then Nick turned to replace the lid. When he turned back, the woman had slipped away, quiet as a whisper, without his ever knowing she had moved. He watched her rewind her muffler around her face. She pulled the gray mittens from the deep pockets of her dark green cape and put them on before taking the string-tied bundle and dropping it into her basket.
"Thank you, Mr. Ridley. You'll put this on our account?"
"Done before you asked. I'm not forgetting how sick my little Priscilla was and how many trips Dr. Buchanan made to our place in the dead of night, refusing to charge me any extra for the trouble. And those medicines you mixed up for her—"
"I'm glad they helped," she said, turning away. "Tell Priscilla that for me, will you?"
"Sure will. You take care going home now, you hear? Ol' Ambrose was in, a little while ago ... said there were a lot of icy spots on the road."
The woman nodded. The bell tinkled when she opened the door, then clanged loudly as she slammed it behind her.
Nick felt the cold blast of air and rubbed his hands over the stove. "Who is she?"
Mr. Ridley looked at Nick, then toward the door. "Who? The one that just left, or the one standing over the yard goods?"
"The green wool cape."
"No point in telling you who she is. Wouldn't do you an ounce of good. Waste of time is what it would be."
"I'll be the judge of that. Who is she?"
"I'm telling you, mister. It won't do you any good to know who she is. That gal is off limits."
"No, but she might as well be."
"What does that mean?"
"It means you'd be beating your gums together. You could chase her from hell to Jericho and still have about as much luck as a cross-eyed owl walking a straight line. You're not the first young buck to inquire about her, you know."
"Are you going to tell me who she is, or not?"
"Or not," the man said and turned away.
Nick felt irritation toward the scrawny-necked clerk. He watched as the bespectacled man went back to wiping the counter, then become too obviously absorbed in the meticulous care he took to arrange the horehound sticks in a candy jar. Nick had never punched a man with glasses before. He toyed with the idea for a minute or two, then decided the man didn't look much more substantial than one of Miss Merriweather's teacups.
The wind lashed angrily at him as he left the store, but Nick hardly noticed. His Scots dander was up again, and that produced enough heat to warm half of Indianola. Even the chestnut seemed to sense his foul mood, for he didn't try any of his previous shenanigans as they rode down the road toward the tiny gray house that faced the harbor.
Once he was inside the house he started a fire and made himself a stout drink of hot rum and spices. Standing in front of the window nearest the fire, he pulled the curtain back while he stared outside and drank his rum. By the time he had finished half of it, Nick felt his body relax. His eyes moved over the cold, gray depths of seawater, watching the wind tip each wave it created with fine white foam. The water looked about as hospitable as the woman. Yet he couldn't shake the way those eyes of hers had looked at him. She had eyes like a cat: aloof and mysterious. Would she purr as well?
The woman was obviously not interested, but that had never stopped Nicholas Mackinnon before. In fact, if the truth were known, it served only to intrigue him more.
"By God," he said, bringing the mug to his lips and taking a healthy swallow, "I'll stay here long enough to build fifty ships if that's what it takes. But mark my words and mark them well: Your days are numbered, my fair-haired lass. And when I set my mind to something, I always get what I want." He dropped the curtain in place and finished the last of the rum.