Frank bowed a little, doffing his cowboy hat. “Sorry if I startled you, Ma’am,” he said in his deep, resonating voice. “May I walk you back to the cabin? I’d like to have a word.”
Eliza nodded her assent and he dropped into step beside her. “Thank you again for the dinner, Ma’am.”
Eliza smiled up at him. “It was the least I could do.” Even though she’d paid the hands as well, dinner was part of the custom. You paid your workers with cash and with care, Mrs. McWhorter always said.
Frank removed his hat completely and turned it in his big, work-worn hands. He cleared his throat. He seemed nervous. She stopped and looked up at him, waited for him to say his piece.
He stared at his hands for a long while. “Miss O’Malley, I was wondering…”
She could hear the sound of her own heartbeat, along with the night sounds of a working farm. “What is it, Mr. McGee? What can I do for you?”
He looked up and into her eyes then. His dark eyes glowed in the scant light from the moon and the campfire.
“Miss Eliza, would you do me the honor of allowing me to court you?”
Had she heard him right? Or had her own romantic thoughts about Mr. McGee played tricks with her hearing? She peered into his intense gaze and repeated, “Court me?”
Frank drew in a great deep breath and blew it out.
“Yes, ma’am. Unless you are spoken for?”
“Spoken for?” She couldn’t get her mind to catch up to the thought that this handsome man wished to court her. This had never happened to her before and she had not expected it, not so soon after meeting the man.
Frank shoved his hat back onto his head and she was afraid she’d offended him. Then he reached out and grasped both her hands in his own and squeezed them tightly.
“Eliza, please, think of me as a suitor,” he implored her. “You are smart, beautiful, a hard worker.” He took another deep breath. “And you smell like heaven. I would be honored if you might consider me a beau, and might allow us to get better acquainted.”
Her heart tripped into a rapid beat. This man noticed scent.
She allowed herself a small smile. “I have no experience in such things, sir, but if you are sincere, and if you might be patient with my inexperience I would indeed like you to court me.”
He dropped fervent kisses on both her hands.
“Thank you, Eliza. Might I call you Eliza?”
She giggled. She’d thought of him as simply Frank almost all day long. “You may, if I might call you Frank.”
He grinned at her then, and his straight white teeth flashed in the moonlight. He tugged her hands, pulling her a little closer.
“You may.” His gaze was intense as he searched her eyes. “Eliza, just so you know, I am going to kiss you now.”
He didn’t hesitate, but dropped his face very close to hers. She could feel his breath on her lips a second before he touched his lips to hers in a soft, slow, very gentle kiss.
It was nothing like the hardy, rowdy kisses she had sometimes seen between the women at the pub and the men they were with. When she witnessed those kisses she got a funny feeling in her stomach, like she was seeing something wicked she should not observe. She got that funny feeling in her stomach again, but not because it felt wrong. Because the kiss felt very right. His lips were feather soft, moving very lightly, very carefully. He didn’t embrace her but still held her hands in his. Her heart pounded and he placed her hands against his chest where she could feel the rapid pace of his heart under her palms. And still he kissed her, slowly drawing her into the new status as the one Frank McGee was courting.
When he finally lifted his face from hers she followed his movement so she could place her cheek against his. His face was rough from the day’s growth of beard and she rubbed against it, needing to anchor this memory. Or was it just a dream? Would she wake up if she pinched herself?
She hoped not.
“Goodnight, sweet Eliza,” Frank said, his breath tickling her ear where he whispered the words. “When you are ready we can announce to your Pa that we are courting. I’ll not dignify the man with a request. You are your own woman and your decision is all I need.” He turned then and walked toward the campfire. She touched her fingers to her lips and could still feel the tingle of his gentle touch.
She carried that sensation into the cabin. It was time to find the diary – the book her mother promised would guide her as a Heartmark woman when it came time to fall in love. She took one of the lamps into the room with her, closed the door, and turned up the wick so the light spilled into the room.