Read Chances Online

Authors: Pamela Nowak

Chances (6 page)

“I didn’t think I had.”

They stood in uncomfortable silence for a moment, then Sarah cleared her throat.

“Let’s take a look at the letter, then,” she said.

Daniel gestured to his desk and watched her move away. Her plain brown skirt was unflattering at best. Most women with coloring like hers wore soft hues. But, then, there was nothing soft about Sarah Donovan. He pictured her in strong colors, shades suitable to her attitude but wholly different from the faded brown. Good God, but she’d be striking.

“Oh, my.”

He drew his attention back to the business at hand and peered over her shoulder. “What?”

Sarah stared at the letter, reading. “This letter is intended to serve as this writer’s complaint about the current bounty being placed on local dogs?”

“Standard form. You can look it up in Hill’s.”

She turned, her eyes wide and disbelieving as she crumpled the letter. “You used a social and business form manual? No wonder it’s formal.”

Daniel threw up his hands. “Standard business form isn’t correct?”

“Correct, but far too distant.” She motioned for him to sit and waited for him to settle into the oak captain’s chair. She drew his inkwell close and pulled out a fresh page of stationary. “Let’s start with what happened. What went through your mind went you looked out that door and saw your daughters?”

He turned around in his chair. What did she
think
went through his mind? “I feared they’d been injured,” he said, keeping his voice even.

“Well, yes,” she sighed and rolled her eyes. “But what did you see? How did you feel? You flew out that door.”

“I …” He stopped, unsure of how to describe his feelings.

“Say it,” she commanded.

His mind replayed the scene, awakening the feelings he’d stored away, until the words tumbled out. “Blood. I saw Molly’s dress soaked with blood, and I thought it was hers. I thought my little girl was going to die. All that blood. Good God, she had to be in pain. And then, I realized
she
was all right, and I thought it was Kate.” He paused and turned back to the desk. “It all happened so quickly and was over and done with by the time I reached them.”

“When the practical Daniel took over again?” There was no goading this time, just a simple statement of fact.

“That’s right.”

“So start the letter with that.”

He shook his head. “Sarah, I can’t share that with the entire population of Denver.”

“Why not? Because it isn’t correct to do so?” She tilted her head in challenge.

He pushed the paper away and slouched in the chair. “Emotions are personal.”

Behind him, she stood silent. Then she slowly and deliberately rested her hands on his shoulders. “But don’t you see? Those emotions are what elicit response. People think, ‘My God, what if it were my children?’”

Heat from her hands penetrated his shirt. Daniel tried to ignore her touch. Her firm fingers squeezed, offering reassurance. But it wasn’t the reassurance his mind rebelled against. He fought the instant defense that screamed against being touched so boldly by a woman and against the sudden jolt of attraction that poured through him.

He shrugged away from her hands and pushed back his chair, then stood and faced her. “I can’t do this.”

She tipped her head and caught his glance with her own. “You can,” she insisted. “What if Molly had stepped in front of Biscuit, and what if I had brought her home in the wagon? What would you be feeling then?”

He shut his eyes and brought his hand to his mouth, hating it that she could stir up visions he didn’t want to imagine. “Good God, Sarah.”

“You need to open that letter with a description of what you saw and felt in those first few seconds. Tell them about the red blood on Molly’s blue dress. Tell them about the tearstains on your daughters’ faces. Tell them about Kate’s shaky voice when she revealed that Biscuit was dead and that she and Molly had seen the whole thing. Let the readers feel the shock and fear and anger.”

Daniel listened to the earnestness in her voice and knew she would have no trouble pouring out such thoughts. He gestured to the chair. “You write it.”

She only stared up at him. “You need to write it. You’re the one who felt it.”

He shook his head and turned away from her. He couldn’t. Such things were private, not meant to be shared with anyone, an indulgence in self-pride that would once have netted him a full day of meditation on his knees.

He knew Sarah was waiting. He shook his head again, unable to fully explain. “Writing that down in a letter the public is going to read goes against my rearing, against everything my father ever taught me. I can’t.”

“Your father must have been quite a man,” she said, a challenge in her voice.

He turned on her sharply. “Oh, for Pete’s sake. You make him sound like the devil himself. He was a good and pious man, who knew well the dangers of wallowing in the cesspit of emotions. He was the pillar of the community, the yardstick everyone measured themselves against.”

“That’s a pretty heavy responsibility,” she countered.

“My father served as the one and only minister in Sutton, Indiana. His character was above reproach, and I’ll thank you to quit using that tone when you refer to him.”

They were face to face, Daniel not knowing where his vehement defense of his father had come from. He certainly hadn’t felt that way growing up. Still, everyone had held the Reverend Ebenezer Petterman up as an example. He was right to defend him. He was.

Sarah lowered her gaze and took a deep breath. When she looked back up, her big eyes were once again empty of accusation. “Then I guess we’d best leave the subject.” A beguiling smile filled her face. “But he sounds like a self-righteous stick-in-the-mud, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you,” he said softly. “Good God, Sarah, why do you dig so?”

“Why
don’t
you?” Her eyes were luminous.

An overwhelming urge to touch her cheek coursed through him, then away. He knew he should move back, but didn’t. “Enough. You are trying my temper.”

“Really? I’d hardly noticed.”

He hated her sassiness, and he loved it. Good God, what was she doing to him? “You write the letter.”

She raised one blond eyebrow. “Your temper’s showing.”

“Write the blasted letter,” he ordered, trying to escape from the emotions she was stirring.

Sarah’s eyes widened even more, but she didn’t back away,

Daniel felt as if he were drowning. She was too close, her eyes too captivating, his feelings too jumbled. He’d barely moved and all of a sudden she was in his grip, his mouth descending on hers in an impetuous kiss.

Her lips were soft and slightly parted in surprise.

He pulled away and stared into those big violet eyes.

Aw, hell.
He hadn’t meant to do that. He hadn’t meant to do that at all.

* * * * *

Sarah slammed the cup of lukewarm coffee down on her desk and slumped forward, cradling her chin in her hands. The kerosene lamp’s weak light cast an eerie glow over the cluttered telegraph office. She glanced at the clock. Lord, it was only two a.m., with hours yet to go before her new shift was over. Curse the men in her life for making things difficult.

She was tired and cranky and sick to death of kowtowing to Frank Bates and molly-coddling Daniel Petterman.

Or was it herself she was molly-coddling?

Sarah scowled at her coffee. Lord, not only was Daniel aggravating, but he was getting under her skin. She should have belted him across the face right then and there. And she would have … except …
she couldn’t.

She settled her head on her arms. It had happened so quickly, the heat of Daniel’s strong hands on her upper arms, the sudden warmth of his body as he pulled her close, the surprising touch of his lips on hers. She’d felt that brief kiss to the tips of her toes. Even the memory of it brought goose bumps to her flesh.

She didn’t slap him because she enjoyed it, and
that
bothered the daylights out of her.

The realization hit her hard. She’d spent the evening trying to convince herself that it was the shock that had immobilized her, or perhaps Daniel’s surprised response, the confusion in his penetrating hazel eyes as he drew away from her. Daniel hadn’t meant to kiss her any more than she’d meant to peruse his body after she rode double with him through the streets of Denver the other day. Her face grew hot with the memory. Something drew them together, and she didn’t like it.

The man was maddening, with all his burdensome concern with decorum. How in the world did he ever accomplish anything productive? And his outdated and uninformed view on women irritated her to no end.

Yet he kept intruding into her thoughts.

He hadn’t even looked her in the eyes. He’d paced around the coffin shop with his hands stuffed uncomfortably into his trouser pockets, muttering his regrets and soliciting her forgiveness.

Even though they both knew the kiss wouldn’t have happened without her prodding, she was sure of it.

She’d poked at his emotions, stood there and blatantly soothed his tight muscles, urged him to surrender to his feelings, put her face so close to his that they could feel one another’s breath. She all but invited his kiss.

Maybe she should have hit him just to clear the air.

Except that she’d enjoyed it. It kept coming back to that.

In the end, he didn’t say a word about her behavior. He simply shooed her out of the shop, refusing to work any further on the letter. He instructed her to write it herself, the way she wanted it, and to sign his name.

That was easier said than done. Her most recent draft of Daniel’s letter stared up at her. She glanced at the paper on the desk and read the words. Frowning, she crumpled the page and tossed it across the room. It landed on the floor, near the stool, with the other five pages she’d started and discarded.

Sarah kicked the desk with her sturdy work shoe and cursed. Lord, wasn’t it time yet for the next train to come through? She peered into the coffee cup, worst coffee she’d ever had.

No wonder Bates hadn’t protested when she requested the transfer. Jim had done some checking, and it didn’t look like Bates would be removed as primary op anytime soon. Jim had already filed an official protest and sent it on up the line. Bates’s uncle held just enough company stock to make things complicated. But, as Jim told her, Bates would prove his own inadequacy, given time. It wouldn’t take too long before the man hung himself. Meanwhile, Jim would put her on the night shift. She’d still get her secondary op time in and it would distance her from the errors Bates was sure to make.

But the late shift, or trick, was a miserable one. The wire stayed unbearably quiet, except for routing orders. The leftover coffee tasted like it had been there for days and the great empty depot resounded with eerie echoes. Sarah sighed into the silence, then crossed the small office and tossed the stale coffee out the window.

The signal lantern sat in the rail yard, where she’d forgotten it, beside the main switch. She grimaced and rotated her aching shoulders. Throwing the switches was by far the worst of the shift’s duties.

As the sole employee on duty, she was now responsible for both relaying the routing orders and carrying them out. The heavy levers of the siding switches were harder to push than she had anticipated. It took every ounce of her strength to move them. She’d be sore for days.

Sarah rubbed her eyes and returned to the desk. She might just as well write the letter and get it over with. Her thoughts scattered. Was Daniel sitting in his tidy white house behind the coffin shop, unable to sleep? Was he tossing in his bed? Maybe the kiss hadn't even bothered him.

She should have insisted that he write the dratted letter in the first place.

Men! Bates had delayed her rise to primary op by at least a month, and then Daniel had balked at writing the letter. How in the world was she ever going to get anything important done?

Sarah plopped into the chair and pulled out a fresh piece of paper while she thought over Daniel’s clipped comments about his father. No wonder he was such a stick-in-the-mud. How could someone live his entire life within those narrow confines? How could he subject his daughters to the same stifling rules? It was time Daniel learned there was more to life than that coffin shop and his stuffy little world of self-denial.

How, heaven help her, was she going keep Daniel involved with the cause if he wouldn’t even write a letter?

He was so concerned about public appearances. If she could just force his hand a little. Smiling in spite of herself, Sarah dipped her pen into the inkwell and began the letter again.

Daniel Petterman was about to challenge the good citizens of Denver to join him at the next City Council meeting where he intended to make a public protest against the dog bounty.

* * * * *

Four days later, Sarah sat on a hard-backed chair near the front of the City Council gallery. The place was packed. Grim-faced parents filled the seats, muttering angrily about the bounty issue. At the rear, a group of grocers complained about the problems caused by the stray animals. A bespectacled doctor wandered in, nodding at those he knew. Since Daniel’s letter to the editor had appeared, the
News
had published a flurry of ever more hostile letters on both sides of the issue.

Bill and Elizabeth drifted in, a triumphant smile gracing Elizabeth’s elegant face. Bill’s glance darted around the crowded room, no doubt taking note of who was present. They spotted Sarah and settled next to her.

“Where’s Petterman?” Elizabeth asked.

Sarah shrugged her shoulders. “He hasn’t made his appearance yet. Do you think he’ll really show?”

Elizabeth nodded. “Without a doubt. That challenge was a stroke of brilliance, pure brilliance. Look at the response. And yes, Daniel will be here. He issued the call to action, after all, and a professional businessman can’t go back on such a public statement.” She lowered her voice to a whisper. “I just wish you could have written his speech, too.”

“There’s our man,” Bill announced. He rose and gestured to Daniel.

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