Kurt patted the mare’s neck and pulled her to the fence, looping the reins over one of the posts. Then he spread his hands and said, “My apologies for taking your time, Miss Campbell. Guess I wasn’t as good as I thought. And I didn’t count on how windy…” He stopped himself short and pulled his hand through his disheveled hair.
“Chicago. They call it the windy city.”
“Yeah. It sure is. Not like back home.” He rubbed Molly’s nose with one hand. “She’s a good horse, and her gaits are true. But she’s not my Freckles, and I, uh, I hadn’t realized how long since I’d practiced, either.” He kicked at a clod of dirt in the paddock, dirtying his shiny boots.
She stood up and met him at the fence. “Practicing is important, but don’t worry. You tried your best. I can see you’re a keen shot, though I’m not very good with pistols. I learned on a Sharps single-shot. Used to shoot squirrels back home. That’s how I got my start, I guess.”
“I can shoot with a rifle, too,” he said, pushing back the lick of hair falling over his forehead. “But I learned this trick with a Colt. Easier than trying to maneuver with a rifle under a horse’s belly.”
“I don’t doubt that.”
“Miss Oakley doesn’t shoot from horseback because it’s not ladylike. Is that what she said?” he asked.
“Yes. She only rides side-saddle. Shooting from that position is dangerous. For one thing, you are off balance to begin with and—”
“I understand.” He nodded. “I wouldn’t want to ride on one of those contraptions.” He lifted his head and gazed at her. “I bet you don’t ride side-saddle. Do you?”
“Er, no, I don’t. As I said, my parents bred race horses. I learned to ride when I was barely walking, but we use English saddles for racing mounts. I’ve always ridden astride.”
“Maybe I could practice some more with Molly and teach you how to—”
“Mr. Armstrong, I don’t think it would work out. Colonel Cody is strict about these things. Plus, I would never sharpshoot from horseback. It would look as if I’m trying to upstage Miss Oakley.” She shook her head. “That’s what Lillian Smith tried to do, upstage Miss Oakley, and there were rumors that she cheated, too.”
He hunched his shoulders and sighed. He put his hand on top of hers. “Well, can’t say I didn’t try.” Then he leaned down, bending his head. His mouth was inches from hers.
She closed her eyes, and the strangest sensation swept her. She wanted him to kiss her. Her desire was stupid and reckless. He had to leave; there was no place for him in the Wild West show. She’d never see him again. But she’d never been kissed. And she’d dreamed of being kissed, her first time, by a handsome, broad-shouldered man.
And Kurt was that man—as if her dream had come true.
He leaned in closer and his whisper was soft, “Do you think you could get me a job as a roustabout? Isn’t that what they call the laborers who put up your tents and corrals and billboards?”
She opened her eyes and frowned. Then she stepped back a pace. A muscle twitched at the corner of her mouth. Shame and humiliation flooded her, combining into a thick and brackish mixture, roiling through her blood.
It was obvious he wasn’t attracted to her—all he cared about was a job with the show. She wrapped her arms around her waist and returned to the shelf to sit. The sound of her own voice was dull in her ears when she said, “You can talk to Nate Salsbury. He does all the hiring.”
She waved her hand, hoping the flush spreading through her didn’t show on her face. “We take on a lot of men for that kind of work, Mr. Armstrong. Some travel with us. Others only join for the run of the show.”
“How long will you be in Chicago? Do you know?”
He was a man of many questions. Every time she tried to push him away, he came back again. He was determined, that was for sure. She wished he’d been determined enough to perfect his trick… or… What did she care? Then he would have been puffed up and arrogant. It was obvious he couldn’t see past his ambition.
“We’re engaged through the summer while the Exposition is open. Maybe into October. But you’ll have to apply at the main office. It’s a huge tent to the right of the front entrance. You can’t miss it. That tent is our mess hall, and Mr. Salsbury has an office in the back.”
“Okay, thanks. I appreciate it.” He grinned sheepishly and held out Molly’s reins. “Can you take the mare back? I wouldn’t know where to go.”
“Sure,” she said. “I’ll meet you at the gate and take Molly for you.”
He nodded. They walked along the fence line together, side-by-side, silently.
She unlatched the gate to the paddock and held out her hand. He put the reins in her hand and pulled her forward, their faces almost touching.
His brown eyes were warm and enticing, dancing with golden-colored flecks in their depths. He leaned down. “Please, don’t say anything to Miss Oakley. It’s bad enough to be… to not be able…” He hunched his shoulders. “You know what I mean?”
“Yes, of course, I won’t. But if she asks me?”
“Tell her I overestimated my abilities.”
“I will. I’ll say it was difficult for you, not having your usual mount and—”
“No, no excuses. I don’t deserve them. Just tell her what I said. Okay?” He ran his fingertips down the side of her face.
She shuddered at his whisper-soft touch and couldn’t help but turn her cheek, nestling it in the palm of his hand, savoring him touching her.
“I’ll tell her just what you said. If she asks.”
“You’ve been very kind, Clementine.” He stroked her face and cupped her chin. “Very kind. I hope Mr. Salsbury will give me a job, and we’ll get to see more of each other. I’d like to take you out for a steak dinner if you’d allow me?”
“Oh, Mr. Armstrong, I don’t think—”
“Please, call me Kurt. You don’t mind me calling you Clementine. Do you? It’s such a beautiful name.” He lowered his head until only a mere breath separated them.
She closed her eyes and as if in answer to her silent prayer, he finally kissed her. The touch of his mouth was only a light brush of his lips. Soft but strong, and a promise, too, as sure as an oath taken. She wanted to wrap her arms around him, wishing he would kiss her again.