Wrapping his arms around Eliza, John knocked her over so that they both landed on the grass.
After a startled shriek, she wiggled so that she could face him.
He held onto her and threw his leg over hers before she could get up.
-Too bad those people in town can't see you now. Just look at the way you take advantage of a poor, unsuspecting woman!
Shrugging, he gave her a wicked smile and kissed her cheek.
-Oh John, you can't be serious. Despite her attempt tolook stern, she also laughed. -You're not playing fair. You know I'm not strong enough to get away.
He raised an eyebrow. She wasn't even trying to get away from him. That meant there was hope, right? Even if she protested, she seemed to be enjoying it. Noticing that a strand of her hair was close to her eyes, he reached up and brushed it away. Her skin was soft, and he let his fingers linger at her cheek.
-I never met anyone more determined than you. You're much too stubborn for your own good.
It was true so he didn't deny it. Instead, he let his fingers drift to her pink lips. He'd never kissed a woman before, but he'd seen other men do it. It looked simple enough. And if it was so simple, why did he suddenly worry he couldn't do it right?
She wasn't fighting him. In fact, her hands stayed on his arms. It was a very pleasant feeling--one he wanted to enjoy forever if she'd let him. He closed his eyes and kissed her. His movement was stiff. He knew it was, and he didn't know how to relax when his heart was beating frantically against his chest. But he liked the kiss so he leaned forward again for another one.
Her lips were warm against his, and she returned his kiss, almost seeming hesitant but still willing. He let his lips linger on hers, never wanting to leave the sweet bit of heaven he'd suddenly discovered. He thought he'd like to kiss a woman some day, but he had no idea just how much he'd like it. This, he decided, was the most wonderful experience he'd ever had.
Eliza stepped out of the stagecoach. She glanced at the wrinkled piece of paper in her shaky hands. She was in the right place. The southern Dakota territory was so different from Omaha. But this is what she wanted. A new start. And what better way to get that new start than to go to a small town? Some place where no one knew her or what she had done. She was safe here. Safe to be what she could never be in Omaha: a lady.
The two women who had accompanied her on the long journey across the prairie land stood next to her. The dirt road felt wonderfully solid beneath Eliza's feet after the endless swaying of the stagecoach. It especially was welcome after the frequent vomiting of the pretty young blond who could not tolerate the ride. Eliza was grateful her stomach maintained its strength, though she almost lost it twice from the foul odor.
-I've never been so glad to be anywhere in my entire life, the blond exclaimed as she wiped her sweaty forehead with a handkerchief.
Eliza watched Charity Grooms as her aunt, Bethany Grooms, disposed of the bag of vomit in a trash can by the small general store. Several people lounged about along the main street of the dusty town and watched the new arrivals with interest. She wondered if one of them was Melissa Peters.
-Thank you, Eliza, Charity replied, taking the mint and plopping it into her mouth. -I'm sorry I was such a burdensome companion.
-It was better than going through the wilderness alone.
-Well, you are a dear friend in this unfamiliar place. Charity reached out and placed a hand on her arm. -You must come to my new home sometime. My intended promised he'd let me entertain guests. It's the only part of being back east that I'd miss, and it's the only reason I agreed to be a mail-order bride.
Eliza nodded, though she honestly didn't think they had anything in common. Charity was born and raised a lady. She'd never put one foot in a godforsaken place.
A man who was probably close to thirty approached the
Eliza stepped back. This must be Ralph Custer who sent
for Charity. Her eyes drifted to his badge. So he was the marshal in town.
He took his hat off. -Excuse me, ma'am. Are you Miss Grooms?
While Charity's face glowed, Eliza turned her attention back to the paper in her hand. It was good that Charity had a handsome, respectable man to wed. Eliza was happy for her, and
by the way Charity's aunt gushed, she was obviously happy with the match too.
Eliza needed to find Melissa Peters. Preacher Bill Peters promised that Melissa would be expecting her. All Eliza had to do was go to the address written on the paper. Aware of the way the onlookers watched her, she straightened her hat and picked up her travel bag. It wasn't anything fancy. Nothing like the large trunk Charity and her aunt brought with them.
Eliza shook her head. She wouldn't compare herself to them. It did her no good to do so. Just as Preacher Peters said, she needed to find out who she was and to be content with that. God had forgiven her. That was enough. So why did she feel a pit of despair well up in her chest? And why did she feel more alone than she ever had in her entire life? She wasn't fourteen when her parents died. She was twenty-seven. Well past her prime.
Charity's laughter drifted along the breeze. Eliza shouldn't begrudge the young woman. Charity was nineteen. She was at a good age, and she was such a nice person. Eliza turned and headed down the street. She was used to people staring at her. It came with being a prostitute for twelve years. But she wasn't one anymore. She'd been redeemed. She came here for a new start.
The past remained in Omaha. No one would ever find out about her background. Ever.
Repeating the words in her mind, she passed by the bank when someone stepped in front of her. She gasped and stumbled back.