Excerpt from Dear Penelope

   
     As the conductor passed through the car instructing those who wished to disembark in Emancipation to be getting to it, Lucy was so excited in her haste to exit the train that she almost left her two small bags behind.
     As she stepped down onto the wooden platform, she glanced to her right, where a small knot of people stood waiting for family and friends. She didn't spot her fiancé amongst them, so Lucy stepped off the platform and started up the street that led into town. She hadn't gotten but a few feet in that direction before she became aware of a commotion from her left, the thunder of hooves and a man shouting.
     Lucy turned to see that the man was on horseback and trying to warn her that the great beast running ahead of him was bearing down on her. Stunned, she froze to the spot for a moment and then backed up a couple of steps. The beast, the biggest bull she'd ever seen, veered along with her. She moved forward and, again, the bull followed her movements. The animal was just seconds from crashing into her when a strong pair of arms suddenly lifted her off her feet and flung her out of harm's way. The next thing Lucy knew, she was flat on her back in the dirt and the stranger was stretched out on top of her.
     "Welcome to Emancipation, ma'am," he said, touching the brim of his hat. "Are you all right?"
     She looked up into eyes the color of tempered steel. They were actually twinkling, filled with something akin to mirth despite the dire circumstances. Although the man had propped himself up on his elbows and was barely skimming her body, she could feel his warmth from her breasts to her toes—and realized that she'd stopped breathing.
     Lucy eked out, "Can't..."
     "Are you hurt?"
     "...breathe."
     "Oh, sorry."
     The stranger leapt to his feet and then pulled Lucy up alongside him. As he spun her around and began dusting her off, uninvited, he said, "You're lucky you weren't gored. Are you sure you're all right?"
     Lucy gave herself a moment to consider this. Except for the fact that a full-grown man had pinned her to the ground, she supposed that she was. "I think so."
     The man on horseback rode up then, towing the rampaging animal behind him. "Sorry about running you down like that, ma'am, but I guess this ornery bull of mine isn't too interested in taking a ride on the train. Is everyone all right?"
     "We're fine," the stranger said.
     Lucy was about to agree with him, but then she spotted her new summer bonnet lying a few feet away. "My hat," she said, hurrying over to retrieve the crushed pile of ribbons and Straw. "It's ruined."
     The cowboy, who'd already begun leading the bull away, said over his shoulder, "Figure up the damages, ma'am, and let Cole know what they are. He'll see you get your money."
     "Cole?"
     "Sebastian Cole," said the stranger, again touching the brim of his hat. "At your service."
     Regarding him, really looking him over this time, again Lucy's breath caught. The man was nothing short of dashing, turned out in a fine three-piece suit of charcoal broadcloth, a white shirt with a high collar, and a thin tie of black silk. Topping the look at an angle as rakish as his piercing gray eyes, he wore a black derby. Cole flashed her a grin then, melting something inside her. Lucy had the distinct impression that he knew she thought him very pleasing to the eye.
     Wondering how to respond to such audacity, or if she should even try, she finally made do with a simple, "Thank you."
     He tipped his hat. "I assure you, it was my pleasure."
     Again with the grin, and again Lucy didn't know what to do or say.
     "Is someone meeting you?" Cole asked, saving her the trouble.
     "I thought so, but he doesn't seem to be here. Can you tell me where I might find Charlie's Bakery?"
     Pointing down the street, he said, "It's a couple of doors past City Hall on the left. You can't miss it. Just follow your nose."
     He reached down, collected her bags, and said, "Do you need some help?"
     "Oh, no, thank you. I can manage."
     "As you wish." After turning her bags over to her, Cole said, "When you figure out what's owed you for the hat, you can find me at the Pearly Gates. It's across the street from the jailhouse."
     Then, leaving Lucy to wonder if he was making some kind of joke or if there really was such an establishment, Cole turned on his heel and continued on toward the depot.
     She looked after him for a moment, admiring his confident swagger and the way the tails of his jacket hugged his trim hips, and then mentally slapped herself. She was here to wed the man she loved after an absence of several weeks, not to ogle other men.
     Thinking only of Charlie again, Lucy plopped her ruined hat on her disheveled hair, renewed her grip on the bags, and headed up Main Street. As Cole suggested, all she had to do was follow her nose. The scent of fresh-baked bread mingled with something sinfully sweet led her along until she was standing in front of Charlie's Bakery. Lucy paused, studying the freshly painted sign and gay curtains framing the windows in checkered squares of blue and white. She was proud of all Charlie had accomplished in so short a time, but somehow disappointed, too. She'd assumed that when she arrived, she'd be the one to apply the finish work, the woman's touch, so to speak, and leave the baking to him. Apparently he'd managed everything all by himself.
     Swallowing her disappointment, and eager to see her fiancé again, Lucy set her bags down on the boardwalk and opened the door. The tinkle of a little bell greeted her as she stepped inside, and the heads of half a dozen patrons turned toward her. After looking her over and deciding that she was a stranger, they gave off faint but welcoming nods and then went back to their sweet rolls and coffee. Lucy couldn't help but notice that each of the dozen or so tables was decked out in blue and white-checkered tablecloths that matched the napkins and curtains.
     "May I help you?" came Charlie's voice just before he stepped up behind the counter.
     When he came into view, Lucy's breath caught as it had at the depot. She'd always thought of Charlie as a fine-looking suitor, but he'd somehow changed from a baby-faced boy to a very handsome young man. Oh, his blond hair was still the same, cut short and neatly groomed, and his pale blue eyes were as friendly as ever, but even with the little brush of a mustache he'd grown since she'd last seen him, his face seemed somehow longer, harder. Success had aged him, she noted, and in a very attractive way.
     "I certainly hope you can help me," Lucy said, joining him behind the counter. "I'm looking for my fiancé, who was supposed to meet me at the train. Have you seen him?"
     Charlie's face got kind of tense and waxy, and his eyes went round. "Lucille."
 
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