Notorious in the West(6)

By: Lisa Plumley


 Oh, no. The railway foreman had to be referring to his facetious offer—made at her father’s tent hotel over cups of Old Orchard whiskey late one night—to “get that girl’s head outta them books and into some wifely duties, where it belongs!”

 “I thought you were joking.” Reluctantly, Olivia postponed her examination of the magnetism-based curative. She gave him a direct look—one she hoped he’d perceive. “If you were joking, Mr. Richter, that would save us both from embarrassment.”

 He did not recognize her attempts to sidestep the issue. Instead, Mr. Richter merely scratched himself absently while the medicine-show man began making sales and collecting coin.

 “Ain’t nothin’ embarrassing about getting hitched to a beautiful woman.” He spat tobacco juice. “No, ma’am.”

 “Mr. Richter!” This time it was Olivia’s turn to gawk. And likely to blush, as well. “I am thirteen years of age!”

 He shrugged. “That’s old enough, if your pa agrees.”

 “My father will not agree.”

 “Then I’ll bide my time.” Plainly unperturbed and undeterred, Mr. Richter tipped his hat. “I can be patient.” He cast a glance at the peddler’s preserved exotic fruits, raised an eyebrow at their scandalous promises to bestow “bull-like stamina” then sauntered away without purchasing anything.

 Irked to have had her stimulating outing interrupted for such a nonsensical reason, Olivia turned toward the medicine show’s wagon—only to come face-to-face with the alert gaze of a dark-haired, lean-looking Romany man. She recognized him, having glimpsed him earlier, as the medicine show’s driver and bagman.

 Evidently, he’d overheard her conversation with Mr. Richter, because he aimed a disgusted glance at the foreman.

 “Some men, eh? They have no finesse.” The bagman leaned confidingly nearer, his warmth compelling in the cool mountain air. “A girl like you deserves better. You are—” he gave an elegant wave “—special. Very special. I saw that right away.”

 Olivia couldn’t help feeling vindicated by his perceptiveness—and a little thrilled, too. “Well,” she said, “that puts you one boot ahead of Mr. Richter, doesn’t it?”

 “No.”

 “Oh. Well. I’m sorry. What I meant was—”

 “I am at least two boots ahead of him,” the bagman corrected her with a teasing grin. “Give me time. I will show you this.” Convivially, his gaze dipped to the remedy bottle in her hand. “You are interested in curatives? In perhaps traveling far and wide, like me, and seeing all the wonders of the countryside?”

 “I am!” At least this man hadn’t tried undressing her with his eyes, Olivia reflected. He obviously—amiably—appreciated her intellectual curiosity, too. “Most people in Morrow Creek don’t think much about what’s outside it. But I do. All the time!”

 The bagman gave a wise nod. “That is two of us, then. But you do not need any remedies of this kind.” Gently, he touched the bottle in her hand. “This one is for—” he paused, offered a few words in an accented dialect she didn’t understand then translated “—old people. You are not old. You are...magnificent!”

 He kissed his fingertips as he said it, then flung his showy kiss to the territorial skies in a grand, gallant gesture. His dark eyes sparkled with good humor and attentiveness. Olivia couldn’t help liking him—or being intrigued by him. His close-trimmed beard lent him a keenly romantic air. His tattered finery and unfamiliar European inflection gave him an exoticism that felt far too exciting for staid Morrow Creek.

 Finally. Here was someone who’d speak seriously to her. Someone who’d respect her curiosity and her bookishness alike.

 Heaven knew, most people in Morrow Creek couldn’t fathom either of those qualities. Annie expected Olivia to gush over dressmaking illustrations in Godey’s. Her father expected her to be helpful be quiet, and be in bed by ten. Nothing more.

 “Thank you,” Olivia said, quickly dispensing with the bagman’s flattery. “Now. This nostrum,” she said eagerly, raising the remedy bottle again. “Can you explain how the magnetic properties survived the bottling process? Surely they’re too volatile to withstand boiling?”

 The man laughed. “Ah! You are delightful!”

 Delightful? “Thank you, but I truly am interested in the process,” Olivia explained, “and in magnetism in general.” Didn’t he realize that was what made her “special” in his eyes? “You see, Miss Fairfax Somerville’s experiments proved that—”

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