Notorious in the West(8)

By: Lisa Plumley

 After all, she could have done worse—especially on a day when she’d been presented, at the tender age of thirteen, with one unwanted marriage proposal, one illicit flirtation and one tawdry offer to reduce herself to a mere image to sell nostrums.

 Proudly, Olivia turned to make a triumphant exit.

 Instead, she almost ran smack into her father. Henry Mouton had obviously come to fetch her. His kindly, knowing expression said that he’d expected to find her there. In the least proper place to be. Doing the least ladylike thing possible. Again.

 To her dismay, he shook his head in disappointment.

 Olivia’s heart sank. She so wanted her father to be proud of her. But however she turned, she seemed to misstep.

 Swiftly, she reassessed the situation. She took in her father’s beloved face, his world-weary stance and the handful of posted bills he held in his grasp. He’d plainly been to the post office before coming here and had found several additions to their overall indebtedness waiting there for him.

 They could use any money she could bring in, Olivia knew. Running their tent hotel wasn’t particularly lucrative. Theirs was a hand-to-mouth existence. Although her father had been seeking investors in The Lorndorff’s future, so far there had been no takers. As far as Olivia knew, they were on their own.

 A windfall for having her likeness lithographed would go a long way toward paying their bills. Olivia had her pride. But compared with her love for her father, everything else paled.

 “Unless...” she called to the peddler as he turned away, “you could assure me that your new remedy works?”

 Obviously heartened, he grinned. “Of course it works!”

 Belatedly, Olivia realized that the man wasn’t actually assuring her. He was assuring her father. Because everyone knew that a small-town girl like her didn’t have the mental capacity to understand scientific principles. Wasn’t that correct?

 Gritting her teeth, Olivia made herself smile back at him. If downplaying her intellect was what it took to salvage this situation, then that was exactly what she’d do. For her father.

 “Very well! If my father agrees—” here, she cast a cautious glance at him “—I’ll simply choose my prettiest dress and pose!”

 At that, the peddler and the townspeople surrounding him released a collective pent-up breath. It was, Olivia discerned, as if they’d all been made wholly uncomfortable by her outburst. Including her father. Now, though, even he appeared relieved.

 That was all the assurance Olivia needed. From here on, she vowed to herself, she’d never give him another reason to feel disappointed in her. She’d be prim. She’d be proper. She’d finance a piece of their future with her face and feel happy about it. Because she wanted to please her father. She wanted to know that their friends and neighbors approved of her. She wanted to belong somewhere. It was clear now that the only path to those goals was paved with ruffles and lace and rosewater perfume. It was overlaid with delicate fainting spells and crowned with an avowed interest in needlework. It stomped on her books and ignored her curiosity. It squashed her spirits.

 The respect Olivia craved felt entirely out of reach.

 Maybe it always would dangle beyond her grasp.

 But at least she could choose another path for herself, she reasoned. At least she could step deliberately and wholeheartedly into her future. At least she could do that.

 So that was how, on the day when she’d dreamed of being welcomed into intellectual and scientific society—however dubiously framed by a medicine show wagon and a saucy Romany driver—instead Olivia Mouton found herself being inducted into the ranks of the verifiably beautiful. For better or worse, beauty was her sole oeuvre now. No matter how much she loathed its fripperies, she’d simply have to get used to it.

 Without her so-called beauty, it was clear to Olivia now, she was no one at all. And that was something she could not bear. So she put on a smile, raised her skirts and went to assume her unwanted role as the prettiest girl in Morrow Creek.

                       Chapter Three

 June 1883, Morrow Creek, northern Arizona Territory

 Shrouded by darkness, Griffin Turner stood alone on the train depot platform, surrounded by muddy planks and ponderosa pines and unlimited star-spangled skies, watching the westbound train that had brought him churn its way into the distance.

 For the first time in a long while, no one rushed to help him, to kowtow to him or to take his baggage. No one hurried to curry his favor or to ask him to invest in one foolhardy venture or another. No one cared who he was or why he’d arrived.

Also By Lisa Plumley

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