Authors: Geralyn Dawson
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Historical, #General
THE KISSING STARS
Copyright © 1999, 2011 by Geralyn Dawson
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this work may be reproduced in any fashion without the express, written consent of the copyright holder.
The Bad Luck Wedding Dress is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictitious and are not based on any real persons living or dead.
Cover design by Stephanie Knautz
“THIS CAN’T GO ON much longer. Word is getting around about Rosie.”
Tess Cameron glanced at her friend Edna Starbright, otherwise known as Twinkle, and offered a reassuring smile. “It won’t go on much longer. She’s getting too old and besides, this is the last fair of the season.”
“And the money? How are we doing there?”
“Will counted up, and as of last night, Rosie’s earnings have exceeded his goal by thirty-seven dollars. Any cash he pockets today will be extra.”
Twinkle brightened at the news. “Well, isn’t that wonderful.” Glancing at Rosie, she said, “You could retire right now if you wanted, but I don’t think you do. In fact, I bet you’ll miss it once you quit. You like leading men around by their noses, don’t you, girl?”
Rosie snorted and nabbed the carrot dangling from Tess’s hand.
“I think that’s a no,” Tess said with a laugh. “Rosie is a terrible flirt.”
“She’s a terribly fast flirt.” Twinkle leaned over and cooed into Rosie’s face. “Isn’t that right, precious. You have those boys so confused they won’t know sic ‘em from come here.”
Rosie’s snout wrinkled in what looked suspiciously like a grin. She truly did appear to enjoy her work, and she was so very good at it. Greased up and turned loose in a pen of people intent upon the chase, Rosie ran fast enough to split the wind and scorch the ground. Eight times out of ten she escaped the chaser’s clutches altogether. The few times she lost the contest and ended up imprisoned in the hunter’s arms, Tess swore her squeals were gales of laughter.
Everyone who saw Rosie run agreed she was the fastest pig in Texas.
Tess thought she was probably the happiest pig in the state, too. She wouldn’t allow Will to race Rosie if she didn’t believe the animal enjoyed it. She loved the young swine. Rosie was family, and family meant everything to Tess. Maybe because she’d worked so hard to create one for herself.
Twinkle interrupted her reverie by clicking her tongue and asking, “What’s keeping Will? It’s not like the boy to ask you to get Rosie ready for her race.”
“He’s meeting us at the arena,” Tess replied, a smile teasing her lips. “He managed to talk his way into judging the pie contest, and he knew he wouldn’t be through in time to see to Rosie’s preparations.”
“Food. I should have realized. I swear the child could eat the blades off a windmill these days. Never seems to get enough to eat. He and Rosie are two peas in a pod where supper is concerned.”
“More like two pigs in a pen,” Tess replied dryly, thinking of how Will wore dirt like a badge of honor. Most of the time, Rosie was far cleaner.
Rosie snorted as if in agreement.
Leaning against the wooden fence rail of Rosie’s small stall, Tess observed the bustle of activity as owners prepared their livestock for the judging scheduled to take place later that afternoon. She’d grown accustomed to the sights, sounds, and scents of similar barns during the past six weeks, and enjoyed being part of it.
It was a relatively new experience for Tess. Although she’d lectured at county fairs and expositions across the state since returning from her European studies four years ago, she’d never ventured into the livestock barns until this season. But Will had needed something to keep him occupied while on the fair trail this summer, and racing Rosie turned out to be the perfect solution. The boy had both enjoyed the time away from Aurora Springs and earned the money to buy his own telescope, something he greatly coveted.
Which brought her thoughts around to the new telescope she’d ordered for herself. The shipment should have arrived in Aurora Springs by now. “Oh, Twinkle, I am so ready to go home.”
Her friend looked up from her task of tying a pretty red ribbon around Rosie’s neck for the walk across the fairgrounds to the arena. “You are?”
“Yes, I am. In fact I’m tempted to head back after I’ve given my speech this afternoon.”
Twinkle gave the bow one last adjustment, then patted the sixty-pound porker on the head. “But we’re not scheduled to leave until the day after tomorrow.”
“I know.” Tess brushed her fingers across the soft satin ribbon around Rosie’s neck, then scratched the underside of her snout, just the way she liked it. “But I’m anxious to get back to work, and besides, I miss everyone at home.”
“It has been a long six weeks,” Twinkle agreed. “You won’t get any arguments from me if our plans change. In fact, I’d feel better if we did catch an early train. I haven’t wanted to mention anything, but I’ve been having one of my hunches.”
Tess shot her friend a sharp look. “About someone back home?”
“It’s nothing specific, hon,” Twinkle said, shrugging. “More like a general sense of foreboding.”
Tess shuddered as a chill ran up her spine. She had learned to pay attention to Twinkle’s hunches because they so often proved true. “But it’s about someone at Aurora Springs? You can’t tell who? Doc or Andrew, maybe? The Bakers?”
Twinkle nibbled at her bottom lip and considered the question for a full half minute. “No, not Amy Baker, anyway. This is a masculine feeling, but I can’t take it any farther.”
“Maybe we should send a telegram,” Tess said, thinking out loud.
“As if anyone in Eagle Gulch would bother to deliver it to Aurora Springs,” Twinkle replied with a grimace. “This is one of the few times I dislike the fact we’ve made our home in such an isolated locale as southwest Texas.”
Tess couldn’t argue with that. Reaching down to give Rosie a comforting pat—for her own sake, not the pig’s—she said, ‘“I wish Doc had come with us this summer. He promised not to head down to Big Bend before autumn, but ever since the Rangers mentioned finding those pictographs in the caves, he’s been like a kid waiting for Christmas. If he has already started down there, he could be in real trouble. I worry about him crossing the desert in the summertime. He’s not as young as he thinks he is.”
“And he’s too stupid to realize it.”
“Well,” Twinkle said defensively. “Admit it, Tess. The man is a terrible flirt despite being almost fifty years old.”
Good for him
, Tess thought, though she was too busy worrying to argue. She allowed the conversation to die while she considered the problem of their departure. Leaving early would take some doing, but ignoring Twinkle’s hunch might be more difficult in the long run. In that instant, the decision was made. “Twinkle, after I’ve presented my lecture at the science hall this afternoon, how about we gather up Rosie and Will and take the first train headed west? The state fair officials can find a substitute pig to run in tomorrow night’s contest.”
“Say no more, dear,” Twinkle replied while giving Rosie one last brushing down. “I’ll see that our things get packed.”
Minutes later, Tess led the pig from the barn. Stepping out into the warm September sunshine, she tried to shake off the strong sense of dread Twinkle’s suspicion had draped about her shoulders like a leaden shawl. But the feeling wouldn’t go away. In fact, as she crossed the fairgrounds toward the canvas-enclosed arena, it only grew stronger. Outside the temporary structure she paused and took a deep breath.
She didn’t want to go inside. She really, really didn’t want to step into that tent. Idly, she wondered if Twinkle’s hunch-powers had rubbed off on her. Because in that moment while facing the arena doorway, Tess knew that somehow, in some way, her life was about to change.
And not necessarily for the better.
Gabriel “Whip” Montana stuffed the fair schedule in the pocket of his sturdy denim trousers, then slipped his fingers beneath the red bandanna tied around his neck and massaged his tense muscles. Lifting an exasperated gaze toward the cherubs painted on the main exposition hall’s ceiling, he asked, “What idiot thought up that one? And why do I have to judge the finish line? Haven’t I done my part by putting ribbons on the pies? The rhubarb was so bitter it liked to have killed me. And the governor is still after me to give a speech.”
Mack Hunter hooked his thumbs behind his suspenders and smirked. “It’s a fair, partner, and since you’re the fairest man of all at the moment, you’re lucky they haven’t hung an exhibit sign around your neck and set you down between the needlepoint and the quilts. You’re a hero, Whip. A first-class, bona-fide hero.”
As a flock of females passed by them, their flirtatious smiles reserved for Gabe alone, Mack added, “And I don’t mind telling you that hanging around with a hero is playing hell with my wooing opportunities.”
Gabe scowled at his friend. “I’m not a damned hero.”
“Uh huh.” Mack stuck his hands in his pockets and sauntered off, whistling.
Temper rumbled inside of Gabe. The emotion had been building slowly over the past three months, but all this attention today had brought him right to the edge of an eruption. He strode after his friend and nudged him roughly on the shoulder. “Put a cork in it, Mack. Davy Crockett was a hero. Jim Bowie was a hero. I’m an investigator for the railroad.”
The baiting spark in Mack’s brown eyes faded, replaced by a look of total seriousness. “You brought in Jimmy Wayne Bodine, the most evil sonofabitch ever to ride the roads of this state. You saved every hostage in that schoolhouse. You earned the title of hero whether it wears easy or not.”
Gabe set his jaw, not willing to hear it from Mack, too. Maybe things worked out this time, but it didn’t always happen that way. He knew that first hand, and the memory of it chapped like wet leather. “I did my job,” he bit out. “That’s all.”
“And a damn fine job it was,” Mack snapped back, his voice echoing in the high-ceilinged hall.
“One that should never have needed doing. The Rangers were idiots for allowing him to escape their custody to begin with. And I was simply in the right place at the right time to get him back.”
“Only because you were smart enough to track him when he’d fooled the law into thinking he’d headed in the opposite direction. Quit being so stubborn and take credit where it is due.”
After that, a full minute passed without either man speaking. Being two strong personalities, the partners got crossways on a regular basis and experience had taught them that sometimes a little silence prevented a descent into a full-blown argument. Not that Gabe minded locking horns with Mack; sometimes a man simply needed a good fight to get the blood flowing. But the middle of the exposition hall during the fourth annual Texas State Fair when he was an official, invited guest of honor whether he liked it or not, wasn’t the time and place for a word war with his best friend.
Mack apparently agreed because he lightened the atmosphere by slapping Gabe on the back and grinning. “Well, since you’re so bound by duty, I reckon it’s time to ease your way on over to the swine barn. I swear I hear those little piggies squealing from here.”
“Pig races.” Gabe sighed heavily. “They’re being held in the arena area underneath the canvas, not in the swine barn. And what could be a more appropriate venue than a circus tent?”
The two men made their way from the exposition hall and out into the sunshine. Animal odors hung heavy in the air of the unseasonably hot afternoon, along with the more appetizing aromas of fried chicken and barbequed beef. The midway was filled with bustles and bowlers and giggling youngsters lining up to ride the flying-jennies. Laughter and conversation hummed around them, punctuated by an occasional roar coming from the one-mile racetrack at the center of the eighty-acre fair site.
Gabe gazed longingly at the track as they strolled toward the canvas pavilion. “That’s the finish line I wanted to judge. The horse races. Tried to talk the fair officials into letting me do it. I think I would have convinced them had Mayor Wilson’s wife not been eavesdropping on my conversation.”
“I saw that.” Mack flashed a wide smile toward a pretty young woman walking past, then sulked when she ignored him in order to bat her lashes toward his partner. “I think Helen Wilson might have gone so far as to take a gun to you to get you to taste her Arabella’s peach pie.”
“It was delicious,” Gabe said with a shrug. “It suited me just fine to award her a ribbon. That’s all they were gunning for, unlike some of the others.”
“Just how many marriage proposals did you get, anyway?”
Grimacing, he took a mental count. “Four during the pies. Six with the jams and jellies.”
“Damned women are getting more forward every day. Scares me to think about what’s ahead of us once the century rolls over eleven years from now.”
Gabe snorted a laugh. “Don’t blow that smoke my direction. I know you, Hunter. You adore forward women.”
“Only when they’re being forward with me, which hasn’t been happening because they’re too busy making cow eyes at you. Ten marriage proposals.” He shook his head with disgust. “Any others that weren’t so honorable?”
Recalling Rachel Mayberry’s whispered suggestion, Gabe couldn’t help but crack a grin. “Just one I’d consider acting upon.”
“I knew it.” Mack slapped his hat against his thigh. “The delectable Widow Mayberry. Right? She had that look in her eye.”
Gabe nodded. She’d also had some damned interesting ideas on how best to enjoy her blue-ribbon blackberry jam.
Tugging his pocket watch from his brown leather vest, Gabe checked the time and picked up his pace. Like it or not, he’d bowed to Governor Ross’s pressure and agreed to participate in the fair. One of the hard-and-fast rules he lived by was that once he said he’d do something, he damn well did it.
Another lesson taken away from that cursed night a dozen years past when he’d failed so horribly.
Strangers hailed him repeatedly on his way to the arena, the more bold among them attempting to draw him into conversation about the events at Cottonwood Hollow school Mack, ever his friend, ran interference for him, and thankfully he made it to his destination without having to speak Jimmy Wayne Bodine’ s name a single time.
Tiered wooden bleachers rimmed the perimeter of the tent, providing viewing stands for spectators. A railed fence separated them from the arena. As Gabe and Mack arrived, a group of acrobats completed their performance by building a human pyramid. Mack purchased a bag of peanuts from a vendor, then found a seat from which to watch the show.