Hotheads & Misfits Ranch, Near Rock Creek, Neb.
Wiping her hands nervously down the sides of her navy blue skirt, Julia Star Gazer Cross, once known as Wiggle Girl, took a deep breath. She could do this, she told herself. She could. It wasn’t as if Marshal McCloud, Aunt Lou under other circumstances, would toss her in the Rock Creek jail for her request. But she did hold Julia’s future happiness in her hands.
Running one palm across her straight, raven black locks to make sure every strand was in place, she finally gathered the courage to reach up and knock on the front door of the McCloud House.
“Comin’,” came the faint call. It was obvious Louis McCloud had been in the kitchen at the back of the house. Julia grimaced, hoping she hadn’t been trying to cook again.
Who could be knocking on her front door? Lou wondered as she hurried through the parlor toward it. No one used the front door. It was for guests in formal situations. Mostly they only had friends and family over. And friends and family always came to the kitchen door at the back of the house, rarely, if ever, bothering to even knock.
Shaking her head, Lou quickly finished drying her hands on the towel she held then looked around blankly for some place to put it, uncertain why she hadn’t finished drying her hands before leaving the kitchen. Unable to cook much, she’d taken over most of the clean-up duties shortly after they’d moved in to this house some twenty years ago. Shrugging her shoulders, she finally picked up a cushion on the settee in front of the large plate glass window Kid had installed for her birthday last year and stashed the towel behind the cushion.
Straightening, she paused behind the door, doing a quick check of her appearance in the mirror by the door. Noticing a few stray locks of hair that had slipped out of the bun at the back of her head, she quickly swiped them back behind and ear and straightened her skirt before reaching out to open the door.
Swinging the wood paneled door open on its hinges, Lou absently noted that it needed to be oiled as it screeched a bit. But then all thoughts fled her mind as she saw who was outside the door, dressed in her Sunday best.
“Wiggle Girl?” she gasped.
Buck and Dawn Star’s eldest daughter, born the spring before she and Kid returned from the War, stood before her, looking like a frightened rabbit ready to run but determined not to. With both of her parents being only half Indian, Buck was Kiowa and Dawn Star was Cheyenne, the girl had inherited their straight blue black hair, large brown eyes and high cheekbones. But those were the only things that marked her heritage. Anyone who didn’t know, would never have been able to tell. Her skin was a creamy pale white, whiter even than Lou’s perpetually tanned hide. That’s what had allowed her to pass as white and attend Iowa Agricultural College, from which she had just graduated last month.
“What are you doin’ out here?” Lou asked, reaching out to grab the girl’s hand and pull her into the parlor. “Why didn’t ya come ta the back door? Yer family, after all.”
“Well,” Julia hedged, suddenly unsure how to begin what she’d come here to do. “I… this was sort of… to make sure…”
Lou laughed at the girl’s flustered inability to spit it out. “Come on in,” she smiled. “I’ll put on some tea and we can talk.” Turning back toward the kitchen, she added an enticement. “And I believe Kid left a few gingersnaps in the cookie jar. Those are still your favorites, aren’t they?”
Julia laughed, suddenly relaxing. She was still nervous, but no longer quite so fearful. She’d been away so long studying, that she’d built this moment up in her mind until it was an almost insurmountable obstacle to her plans for her future. She’d forgotten just how… down to earth… Aunt Lou was.
Stepping into the room, Julia followed Lou through the parlor and into the kitchen.
“Take a seat,” Lou said, casually pointing to the large kitchen table even as she moved toward the stove and grabbed the teapot. Moving it onto a center burner, she turned toward the hutch and began pulling out a beautiful tea set. It had been a late wedding gift from the Cains. Made of delicate bone china, each piece was rimmed in gold and decorated with tiny hand painted roses. Lou insisted upon using it anytime she had a guest in her kitchen. When Kid said they should save it for special occasions only, Lou smiled and answered that having a friend to share tea with was a special occasion.
Leaving Julia to think, Lou moved around the kitchen humming as she pulled out the tea leaves, the strainers, sugar and milk, placing each on the table before the girl, along with a small platter of gingersnaps. Soon, the teapot was whistling merrily away on the stove.
Settling into the chair across from Julia, Lou served the tea and then leaned back in her seat.
“So, what brings you over here today, Julia?” Lou asked, smiling. “I would have expected you to be over at the Big House,” what everyone called the Cross home across the yard from the McCloud House, “gettin’ reacquainted with yer brothers an’ sisters.”
Julia laughed. Reaching out for a gingersnap, she brought the sweet morsel to her mouth and nibbled delicately at it, as she’d learned to do in her deportment classes at college, before she’d managed to convince the school president to let her pursue a more…. masculine…. course of study.
“The thing is, Mrs. McCloud,” she paused as Lou raised a surprised brow at her form of address. “I had a request to make.”
“Must be pretty important,” Lou said, sitting up more straightly in her chair.
“Oh, it is,” Julia breathed. “It is.”
“Well, I’m sure I’ll have no problem helpin’ ya out,” Lou smiled. “What do ya need?”
“Your blessing, ma’am.”
Lou frowned in confusion, tilting her head in question.
“I wish to court your son, James. And I wish your blessing before I begin.”
Speechless for a moment, Lou just stared at Julia. Finally managing to gather her wits about her, Lou said, “I don’t see as how you need my permission so much as his.”
“I didn’t ask for your permission, ma’am,” Julia said tightly. “Just your blessing.”
“So, you’ll be moving ahead with your plans, will I nill I?” Lou asked, hiding her own amusement behind a stern expression. She’d known Julia since she was an infant. That didn’t mean she wouldn’t put her through her paces if she was truly interested in Lou’s eldest baby.
Julia nodded her head choppily. “But I know things would be better if we had your…. approval.”
“I take it your intentions are… honorable?” Lou asked perspicaciously.
Julia blushed and ducked her head. “Yes, ma’am,” she murmured. “I hope to marry your son, someday. If he’s agreeable.”
Taking pity on the girl, Lou smiled and reached out to pat her hand. “Well, eat up,” she said. “You’ll need your strength if you plan on catchin’ that rapscallion. He’s a lot like his Pa, and let me tell you, he certainly led me on a heckuva chase ‘fore I finally nabbed him.”Chapter 1