TYPE OF FANFIC: Gen, this follows the story The Road to Galilee
MAIN CHARACTERS: Buck, OFC
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the zine, Black Magic #5, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Seven Card Stud that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang – Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, Rebecca Wright Wilson, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-8-2011. Art by Shiloh (email@example.com)
Buck checked his reflection in the mirror for the fifth time in as many minutes. He adjusted the black string tie he had borrowed from the undertaker, and assessed the suit he was wearing with a critical eye.
Then, he grinned. "I look… good," he decided aloud, "even if I do say so myself."
And he should, too. After all, he'd taken a long bath, scrubbing himself from head to toe – even between his toes – seen the barber for a haircut and a shave, bought himself a suit of new clothes, and had his boots polished.
He grinned at himself again and brushed the front of his suit off and pulled his shoulders back, puffing out his chest. Tonight was the night. Tonight he was finally going to be formally introduced to Mrs. Laura Ann Trace.
"Good evening, Mrs. Trace," he rehearsed, using his most gallant tones. "You're looking, well… you're a vision of pure loveliness." He started at himself for a moment, then shook his head. "Top of the evening to you, Mrs. Trace, and may I say you're even more lovely than the sunset this evenin'…" He smiled, please with the sounds of the words, then frowned and shook his head again. She wouldn't like it.
What was he going to say to her?
A relatively new resident of Four Corners, Mrs. Trace was a young widow – a beautiful young widow – but she'd refused every advance and overture Buck had made since the first day he'd seen her out at the old Bryan place…
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck rode along the familiar trail, making his morning rounds of the smaller farms scattered at the eastern edge of Four Corners. It was an uneventful ride, as usual, until he reached the old Bryan place, where he found a trail-worn wagon parked in the yard, and a small child sitting on the old swing that hung from the largest branch of the huge cottonwood that shaded the small, empty house.
Reining his gray over, he rode down and into the yard.
A small girl looked up at him, her blue eyes wide and curious, and asked, "Who are you? I don't think you're supposed to be here."
"Well, little lady, my name's Buck, Buck Wilmington. What's yours?"
"Emily," she replied promptly, sounding a good deal older than her years; Buck guessed she was no more than five.
"Emily?" Buck echoed with his most charming grin. "Well, that's a real pretty name, little lady." He started to swing down off his horse, but stopped when he heard the unmistakable clack of a shotgun being cocked.
"Don't get off your horse, Mister," a woman's voice instructed in cold, no uncertain tones.
Buck settled back in the saddle and used his knees to slowly edge the gray around so he could see who was holding the gun on him. It was a woman all right, but she was wearing a man's trousers and work shirt. The sleeves were rolled up to her elbows and he could see she was strong, but still quite shapely. Comely, too, with long, golden-red hair cascading over her shoulders. Her pale green eyes, however, flashed dangerously.
"Ride off my land – now," she ordered, pulling the butt of the shotgun snug against her shoulder.
Buck tried his most winning smile on the woman, saying, "Now, ma'am, I'm Buck Wilmington. You can ask anyone in town who I am. My friends and I, we keep an eye on folks livin' 'round here, to keep 'em safe."
"I don't need anyone watching out for me," she snapped irritably. "Now, get out off my land. I won't be telling you again."
"Ma'am," Buck began, but the woman closed one eye, taking aim at him. "Yes, ma'am, I'm leavin'," he said, wheeling the gray around and heading out at a brisk lope. He cursed softly under his breath – something about women who thought they were men enough to wear pants.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck grinned, admitting to himself that it was the contradiction – a beautiful woman, dressed up like a man – that had first piqued his curiosity about Mrs. Laura Ann Trace.
And then, three days later, he got another surprise when he saw her and Emily at Potter's General Store, only this time she wasn't wearing men's trousers. It was a green patterned dress, her long, golden-red hair falling down her back in thick waves that bounced when she walked. Emily skipped alongside her mother, blonde ponytail bobbing as well.
At a respectable distance, Buck followed the pair down the boardwalk, enjoying the way the woman's hips swayed and the fact her shoulders were pulled back so she walked with her head up, her gaze meeting the eyes of the women who passed her by. She nodded greetings to the ladies, but ignored the men, and he finally guessed she averted her eyes as she passed them so she wouldn't have to have any interaction with them, although they all tipped their hats and offered her greetings.
When she stepped into the store, Buck remained outside, pretending to examine the items in the window while he watched her talking to Mrs. Potter. The two women shared a laugh, and Buck felt his heart melt clean away at the sight of her smile and the music of her laughter. He sighed heavily, but Mrs. Trace was headed for the door and he had to hurry further down the boardwalk toward the saloon to avoid getting caught. He slipped inside the Standish Tavern and spied on her as she made stops at several of the other local businesses, including the office of the Clarion.
When Buck saw her leaving town with Emily, Buck headed straight over to the newspaper office. He knocked once and stepped inside without waiting for an invitation.
Mary Travis looked up from where she was working, setting type. "Can I help you, Mr. Wilmington?" she asked him, her expression curious. It wasn't often Buck dropped by her office.
"I saw Mrs., uh…" Buck began, stuttering almost immediately to a stop.
"Trace?" Mary supplied, her eyebrows arching slightly with surprise and amusement.
The notorious ladies' man nodded. "Yeah, Mrs. Trace," he repeated. "I, uh, saw her drop in earlier and I was just wonderin'… who is she?" he asked, so sincerely that Mary told him.
"Well, she's a widow," Mary explained, curious and amused by the honest interest on the man's face. Could it be love rather than lust had finally landed on Buck Wilmington's doorstep? "She and her daughter moved here from Kansas. She's considering starting a school for the local children. She was a teacher in Kansas, until she married."
"A school teacher?" he repeated, the surprise clear in his expression and in the tone of voice.
"Before she married," Mary reiterated. "We could use a school. There are more children here now, and—"
"I couldn't agree more," Buck assured her. "Kansas? How'd she hear about Four Corners?"
Mary smiled. "She happened to see a copy of the Clarion and sent me a telegraph. I explained how badly we needed a teacher, and told her about the old Bryan place being available. She agreed to come."
"You don't happen to know anything about her husband, do you?"
Mary gave him an uncertain look. "I don't think—"
Buck flashed the newspaper woman his most innocent, sincere smile. "I was just curious. Was he an, uh, older man?"
Mary's brow furrowed slightly. "To be honest, I don't really know. She hasn't really said anything about her late husband, or the rest of her family for that matter."
"A woman of mystery," Buck said softly, a besotted expression on his face.
Mary hid her smile behind her hand.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
And that mystery had remained unsolved by Buck Wilmington – his one true defeat in a lifetime of conquests among the gentler sex. Because no matter how he tried to get to know Mrs. Laura Ann Trace, he was rebuffed by the woman, until she finally told him, in no uncertain terms, that she would not, under any circumstance, speak to him again, unless or until they were "formally introduced."
And the likelihood of that happening was next to impossible. Besides, Buck wasn't even sure what, exactly, she meant by it.
But then, over the following few weeks, Buck noticed Mrs. Trace spending a good deal of time at the church with Josiah. At first he guessed it was because she planned to use the building as a school house during the day, but when he noticed her and Emily arriving on Sunday mornings as well, he knew he might have a chance to get to know her after all.
Not that Josiah made it easy for him. No, in fact, the preacher had refused to help him at all in the beginning. But Buck begged and pleaded, he wheedled and cajoled, he whined and pestered, until, finally, as a Christmas gift – and probably in a last ditch attempt to keep the ladies' man from dogging him incessantly – Josiah promised to formally introduce Buck to Laura Ann.
But, Josiah said, first he had to warm her up to the idea, and that, he warned, might take some time – a good deal of time.
Months, to be exact.
But, now, finally, it was going to happen. Josiah would introduce them at the restaurant, and then sit with Emily while Buck and Mrs. Trace shared a meal together.
Buck checked his pocket watch and cursed softly. He was late. He checked himself in the mirror once more, then grabbed his hat and hurried out of his room.
"Evenin'," he greeted Vin and Chris as the two men walked toward the saloon.
"Where're you headed all gussied up and in a hurry, stud?" Chris asked him, grinning. He knew exactly where Buck was going.
"My formal introduction," the ladies' man crowed, hurrying on with a whoop and a tip of his hat.
Chris and Vin exchanged grins and continued on to the saloon where Ezra, JD and Nathan waited for them. By tomorrow they would finally know who had won their ongoing bet concerning Buck and Mrs. Trace.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Buck hurried along the boardwalk, tipping his hat to the ladies he passed, many of whom giggled and turned to watch him continue to gallop toward the restaurant. When he got there, he found Josiah waiting for him outside, looking more than a little nervous.
"Is she here?" Buck asked the preacher, trying to peer around the big man to look inside.
Josiah nodded. "Buck, I wanted to talk to you before you go in; just so you understand how this is supposed to go."
"What's to understand?" Buck asked, reaching out to open the door, but Josiah stopped him.
"Not so fast, Buck," the preacher said. "We'll go in, together, and I'll introduce you to Mrs. Trace and Emily. You don't say anything until I'm done. Then, Emily and I will go take a table where we can see you, but not so close that we can overhear your conversation. You and Mrs. Trace will order dinner. You'll pay for both—"
"I planned to treat her, Josiah," Buck said, rolling his eyes. It wasn't like he was a complete novice when it came to women, after all! "Now, let's get in there," he urged the preacher. "I don't wanna be late."
"You're already late," Josiah grumbled, shaking his head. "Listen to me, Buck. You're not to ask her about her past, or make any inappropriate suggestions."
Buck looked hurt. "I'd never— Not to her, anyway. And what do ya mean I can't—?"
"You heard me. No questions about her past, or her late husband," Josiah scolded, already regretting his decision to help Buck meet the woman. He never would have offered in the first place, not if he hadn't seen the woman watching Wilmington when she thought no one was watching her. And often enough that the former priest could make an educated guess that she might just be interested in the rogue.
Buck sighed heavily. "Then what am I supposed to talk to her about?"
Josiah thought a moment, then offered, "Well, you can talk to her about the school, or Emily, or how she's getting along out at the Bryan place."
"All right, all right," Buck interrupted. "Can we just go in now, please?"
Josiah's gaze shifted heavenward. "Oh Lord, please take pity as this fool rushes in."
Buck scowled. "You callin' me a fool, Josiah?"
The preacher shook his head sadly. "No, not you, Buck, not you."
Wilmington was confused, but he didn't want to waste any more time trying to sort it out. He gestured to the door, and the preacher opened it, leading the way into the restaurant.
Buck, following, immediately tripped and stumbled inside, coming to an awkward stop. The rest of the diners all looked at him and he immediately pulled his hat off and blushed furiously over his inelegant entrance. Across the room, Mrs. Trace frowned.
With a huffed sigh, Buck settled his hat back on his head and stalked over to the woman. He was immediately lost in the pale green of her eyes, and the way her long lashes made her eyes look so large and so round. Then he noticed the light scatter of freckles on her cheeks… He heard Josiah clear his throat, then felt someone tip up the back of his hat.
He reached up and snatched it off his head again, his cheeks turning an even deeper shade of red.
"Mrs. Trace, may I introduce to you Mr. Bucklin Wilmington."
"You can call me Buck, ma'am," the ladies man added quickly, reaching out to take her hand in his and planting a light kiss on her knuckle.
Josiah sighed heavily. "Mr. Wilmington, Mrs. Laura Ann Trace, of Ellsworth, Kansas, our new school teacher, and her daughter, Miss Emily Catherine Trace."
Buck felt Mrs. Trace tug her hand back and he reluctantly released it. He grinned down at Emily and bowed slightly, saying, "Good evening, Miss Emily."
"Good evening, Mr. Wilmington," the little girl replied formally. Then she grinned and asked, "What're ya havin' for dinner? The pot roast's real good here, but I like the apple pie best."
Buck grinned, but Laura Ann gasped slightly and scolded, "Emily, don't be improper."
Together they all walked to an empty table sitting about midway into the restaurant. Buck skipped around to the side, hoping to get behind Mrs. Trace so he could pull out her chair, but he didn't make it, stepping on the hem of her dress instead. She was jerked to a stop, her eyes going round.
Buck immediately took a step back.
She swung around, green eyes flashing at him, but before she could say anything, Josiah pulled out one of the chairs, saying, "Mrs. Trace, will this do?"
Laura Ann glowered at Buck, then glanced at Josiah, her gaze softening. "Yes, it will be just fine. Thank you, Mr. Sanchez." She sat down.
Josiah nodded to the second chair, and Buck plopped down, his pride stinging. He watched as Josiah took Emily over to another table across the room, pulling out the girl's chair so she could sit first, then taking his own seat. The preacher made it look so damned easy.
Before he could think of something to say, a waitress arrived. "What may I bring you this evenin', ma'am?" the young woman asked Laura Ann.
"I'd like to start with tea, please," Mrs. Trace replied.
The waitress looked at Buck.
"Whis— uh, yeah, tea. I'll, uh, have tea as well," he said, hoping Mrs. Trace hadn't realized he would have preferred whiskey.
The waitress's eyes rounded. "Tea?"
"That's what I said, isn't it?"
She nodded and hurried away, giggling.
Buck sighed to himself and tried for his most sincere, friendly smile. "Mrs. Trace— you don't mind if I call ya Miss Laura, do ya?"
"Yes, I do," she replied coolly. "Mrs. Trace will be fine."
His smile faded slightly. "Well, uh, Mrs. Trace," he said, "what do ya think of Four Corners?"
She hesitated for a moment before she replied, and Buck realized she was sitting ramrod straight, her back as stiff as a board. Was she nervous? He frowned slightly. Why? Did she think he might hurt her? Or was she just enduring this as a favor to Josiah?
"Well, to be honest, Mr. Wilmington, it's a little more of a… frontier than I expected, but the parents I've met have been most gracious, and Mrs. Potter and Mrs. Travis have been very supportive. I'm sorry to admit that I might well have headed back to Kansas if it hadn't been for their continued assurances that I could adjust to life here."
Buck blinked. She'd actually answered his question. Honestly answered his question. He smiled.
Laura Ann waited for a moment, and when Buck still didn't reply, she blushed slightly and asked, "And how long have you been in Four Corners, Mr. Wilmington?"
"Buck. You can call me Buck, ma'am."
Her expression hardened slightly. "Thank you, but I prefer Mr. Wilmington."
Buck's expression turned thoughtful for a moment as he recalled the many adventures he and the other peacekeepers had survived over the past many months. "Let me think now," he said, "it's been more 'n a year now, getting' close t' two if I'm not mistaken."
"To be perfectly honest, Mr. Wilmington," she replied, "I can't image what keeps you here."
Buck shrugged and dipped his head. "Well, ma'am, mostly it's the men I work with," he admitted. "But takin' care of this town, and the people hereabouts, well, I guess you could say it's gotten t' be something of a habit for all of us."
"So, you're planning to settle down here?" she asked, the doubt clear in the tone of her voice.
Buck's blue eyes twinkled. "Might be… if I found the right woman."
He saw her stiffen even more. "I see. Well, given your reputation, Mr. Wilmington, you're rapidly running out of viable choices."
Before he could defend himself, the waitress arrived with a tray. While she set cups and saucers down in front of each of them, then the tea pot and condiments, Buck smiled to himself. Mrs. Trace cared enough to ask, or at least listen to the talk about him in town. Then he frowned. It was also clear she didn't seem too impressed with his conquests.
Damn. He'd never regretted his reputation before.
But she was a "real lady," not a saloon gal, not a working girl, not a spoiled daughter of a banker or a rancher. She wasn't someone he could easily impress with his boasting, or his boyish charm. If he wanted to get to know this woman, he was going to have to treat her with respect; like he treated Mary Travis.
But that was damned difficult to do when he got lost in the green of her eyes, or blinded by the beauty of her smile, which was rarer than a virgin in a whorehouse. And then there was the curve of her neck and the inviting swell of her breasts… Oh, damn, was she talking to him?
"…would you like to pour, Mr. Wilmington?"
"The tea," she snapped, realizing just where his attention had been directed. She raised her hand to cover her chest, her skin turning warm under his loving but wanting gaze.
Buck blinked twice and pulled his gaze away from her chest. "The tea?" He sucked in a breath. "Oh, a course! Here let me—" He reached for the handle of the tea pot, but knocked over the small vase and flowers sitting on the table at the same time.
He immediately grabbed the vase and righted it, but not before water soaked into the tablecloth and the attention of the other patrons all turned to them again.
Mrs. Trace dipped her head – to hide the anger flashing in her eyes he was sure – then reached out and took the teapot herself, filling their two cups.
"I'm real sorry, ma'am," Buck apologized. "Don't know what's got into me t'night." He reached for the sugar bowl, intending to add a spoonful to her cup, but his hands were shaking and the spoon tipped out of the bowl, hitting the side of her cup and tipping it over as well.
Laura Ann gasped as the tea sloshed over the lip of the saucer and dribbled into her lap.
"Oh hellfire!" Buck swore softly, pushing back his chair and stepping up to her, his napkin in hand. Without thinking, he knelt and started to soak up the tea with the cloth, but she had already started to do the same thing.
She jerked back slightly and Buck looked up, the junction of the two actions leaving his nose almost buried in the fragrant valley of her cleavage. He closed his eyes and inhaled her scent with a blissful sigh.
A moment later his cheek was stinging with the force of the blow she landed on him.
Green eyes blazing, Laura Ann stood and stalked over to the table where her daughter sat with Josiah, the preacher's complexion an unhealthy shade of gray.
"Come along, Emily," she said softly, trying not to draw any more attention to herself, but it was far too late. Every eye was on her.
"Mrs. Trace—" the preacher began.
"Don't worry, Mr. Sanchez, I do not hold you accountable for Mr. Wilmington's coarse behavior. You did, after all, warn me."
And with that she took her daughter by the hand and they left, Emily looking back over her shoulder at Buck, her mother staring straight ahead.
"Mama, did you just clobber Mr. Buck?" was the girl's question as the door clicked shut behind them.
Everyone in the restaurant, with the exception of Buck and Josiah, erupted into laughter.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Sitting at a table in the Standish Tavern, Buck nursed his third whiskey, a piece of raw meat still held to his eye, which was ringed with a black bruise.
"She really did clobber you, Buck," JD announced, for the third time.
The ladies' man glowered at Dunne as best he could with one good eye. "She didn't 'clobber me,'" he argued. "It was a lucky shot." He grinned. "I was… otherwise occupied."
"Divin' into the lady's bosom from what we hear," Nathan added, not trying very hard not to smile.
Buck rolled his good eye. "I was not! I was tryin' to dry the tea in her lap. She jerked back and I just found myself…"
"In an opportunity to sample the lady's ample treasures?" Ezra offered helpfully.
Chris and the others all grinned.
"Sounds t' me like yer better off lettin' this mustang go," Vin suggested.
"If only I could, if only I could," Buck sighed heavily. "Have you seen the way the sunlight dances in her hair? Or the way the corners of her mouth tug up when she smiles?"
"Startin' to sound serious, stud," Chris said, watching his long-time friend and wondering if Buck even realized how hard he'd fallen for the woman.
Buck scowled then and shook his head. "What am I sayin'? Vin's right. Damned hellion. Who does she think she is, anyway?"
"Oh, she knows what she is," Ezra told him, a playful twinkle in his green eyes. "And apparently she knows what you are as well, Mr. Wilmington. Your reputation precedes you."
Buck let the piece of meat fall to the tabletop. "Well, she can think whatever she damn well wants," he grumbled, pushing back his chair and standing. "But I'm through. She can rot for all I care. There are plenty a ladies out there who appreciate me." And with that, Buck stomped out of the saloon.
Inez, who had been standing behind the bar, watching the unfolding saga, stepped around to the front and took a seat in the chair Buck had vacated. Her smile gave her a fox-like look. "I have heard talk," she said, soft enough so only the men sitting at the table could hear her. "Mr. Buck hasn't been as, uh, amorous as is his usual nature," she told them. "He is in love." And with that she stood again and headed back to the bar.
The peacekeepers sat in silence for a few moments, then JD snorted softly and shook his head. "I've seen Buck in love – when that lady traveling with the Territorial Governor came to own – I don't think this is the same thing at all."
Chris leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest, his expression thoughtful. "I think that's the point Inez was trying to make, and I'm beginning to think she might just be on to something."
"Buck, in love?" Nathan asked, not sure he believed it. The man had left his boots under the bed of almost every unmarried women in Four Corners, and a half-dozen other communities within a day's ride. And then there were the married ones…
Chris shrugged, but said no more.
"The Lord watches over lovers and fools," Josiah said softly. "And right now, I'd say Buck's gettin' looked after on both fronts."
"Lord better be watchin' his back, if ya ask me," Vin added. "Next time she might just shoot 'im and be done with it."
The peacekeepers chuckled.
But Inez, listening from the bar, shook her head, a knowing twinkle in her eyes. Señor Buck was in love, really in love, perhaps for the first time in his life. And, if the covert glances she had seen Mrs. Trace give him were any indication, his feelings might just be reciprocated. But it was going to take a woman's touch to bring the lovers together. She smiled. Tomorrow she would go talk to Mrs. Travis…