Authors: Ali Olson
Heart of Gold
A Gold Rush Romance
Copyright © 2015 by Ali Olson. All rights reserved.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
The afternoon was bright and mild in the town of Shasta, though the chill of spring hung in the air. Wildflowers bloomed, opening to the promise of warm days to come. The students had left the schoolhouse for the day, eager to enjoy the afternoon before the sun ducked behind the mountains to the west as it sank toward the expansive Pacific Ocean. The children spread across Shasta, a small wave of laughter and joy, content in their freedom as they shouted to one another.
Inside the school, however, it was quiet and tense with emotions far different from joy. Alice Crenshaw sat behind her large oak desk and watched one nine-year-old boy, Joe, as he sat and waited, his shock of blond hair falling across his forehead. He was the only student left in the small building—the room was silent, all the other desks empty, tablets erased, a moment that normally brought Alice peace at the end of the school day. But not this time.
Joe fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with what was about to happen. And to be fair, so was she, she just hid it better. The boy’s new guardian would be arriving soon, and she was dreading it. Her normal calm was disturbed, and she had to focus her attention on keeping her heartbeat normal, her hands unclenched.
She did not dislike the boy’s guardian. On the contrary, she feared she liked him too well. He had been in town for more than a month, this striking, mysterious man. She had only seen him at church, or on the rare occasion she was invited to supper or the town held group meetings. They had spoken no more than a few words to one another. Still, that was enough to pique her interest, and she had quickly found herself attracted to this handsome stranger in a way that disconcerted her.
At least when he had been no more than the visiting uncle of a student, she could curb her infatuation by reminding herself he would leave after a short time and she would simply need to wait patiently, hiding her feelings until the temptation was gone. She had been confident in her ability to do so—as a teacher, she was wonderful at being patient and calm in the face of duress. It had been difficult to hide the way she melted when she saw him, so she had avoided him as much as possible and attempted to wait out his visit.
Now, however, there was no end of her torture in sight. He was likely to settle in Shasta as Joe’s guardian. To make matters worse, she would be unable to avoid him as she once had. In all likelihood, she would even need to regularly have personal meetings like this one because he would be raising Joe, the boy seated in the first row of desks who was waiting so restlessly.
In fact, Joe was being far more restless than was usual for him.
Alice’s brows contracted as she truly considered Joe’s behavior for the first time that afternoon. She knew very well why she was anxious, but had no idea why he would have the same reaction to this meeting. Discovering the hidden dilemmas of the children in her charge was an important aspect of her position as the schoolteacher, and not one she took lightly.
She would need to dig in order to find out the reasons for his behavior, but it would need to be a subtle inquiry—she knew Joe, and was aware of how quickly his defenses would rise if someone implied something was wrong. There had been several instances where just that had taken place, and she was smart enough to not make the same mistakes another time. It was time to put aside her own difficulties and give Joe the attention he seemed to need.
She smiled at the boy and in her cheeriest teacher voice, she said, “It was very nice of your guardian to ask to meet with me, Joe. You must be quite important to him, for him to be concerned with your schooling.”
Joe only shrugged and looked even less happy. Alice’s lips pinched together slightly, but the rest of her face stayed unchanged. Joe and his uncle were not thriving together, that seemed clear. It seemed reasonable to her—she could understand a young child being less than keen on making friends with the man replacing his parents right after they died, even if he was family. Still, she hoped to discover exactly how difficult the transition was for the boy and what she could do to help. The silence in the room grew, as did the tension, but Alice kept the smile on her face as she waited. She had been a teacher long enough to know that pushing the topic further would be much worse than a little tension.
She only had to wait a short time before the clomping of a horse’s hooves came from outside, and Joe turned his attention to the door. Alice stood and took a deep breath, attempting to calm her nerves. She tried to convince herself that she was prepared to greet Joe’s uncle with nothing more than friendly concern. It was not the momentous occasion her mind and body seemed to consider it. A quick discussion about Joe, and that would be the end of it.
No matter what she told herself, however, she could not untie the knot that had formed in her stomach. She ignored it and girded herself for his presence.
When he walked through the door, all her preparation fell to pieces. She was still astonished at how her body reacted whenever she was near him. Her heart sped up until it was nearly painful as she gazed at the man who seemed to have just walked out of a Greek myth. He was tall and powerful, with wide shoulders and heavily muscled arms. He was silhouetted against the rectangle of bright sunlight from the door he had just passed through, making him appear even more unreal. The room seemed small and inconsequential in comparison.
He stepped forward, away from the door, and more of him came into focus, which only furthered her difficulties. She had only seen him in formal clothing before and swooned over him then, but his faded and worn denim pants, his scuffed boots, only added to the rugged aura that always seemed to surround him. She was unable to decide which she liked better, and had to force her mind to stop trying. He was so darn distracting.
He took off his wide-brimmed hat, dismissing the shade that had hidden his face. His mussed hair was rich and brown with streaks of sun-kissed yellow, his eyes so shockingly blue that she always felt as if she had stared at them longer than was proper and needed to look away, only to have her gaze pulled back to them. And then there was the worst thing, the thing that took her breath away more than everything else; his face was kind, and those beautiful eyes held a spark of intelligence that pulled at her. How could all those qualities be found in one human being? It should never have been allowed, but here he was, sent to torment her with his perfection.
Alice placed one hand on the desk she stood, taking strength from the solid symbol of her profession, using it to help her regain some steadiness. She was glad there was this large piece of furniture as a barrier between her and this man that affected her so strongly. She had known it would be difficult to meet with him in such a private context, but this was outrageous.
After a few moments, she realized that she was standing there, staring silently at him like some besotted youth. Not exactly the impression she wanted to make on her pupil’s guardian, even if it was close to the truth.
After one final push to exert control over herself, Alice finally turned her attention to the young boy, whose eyes were focused completely on the floor. Joe was diligently ignoring the man who had entered.
Even though she had met the man before, she found another opportunity to gauge Joe’s feelings for him. “Joe, would you please introduce me to your guardian?” she asked.
Joe stood, looking miserable. Eyes still downcast, he mumbled, “Miss Crenshaw, this is my uncle, Thomas Lancaster.”
Alice paused a moment to see if he would volunteer any other information as he had been taught to do, but that was apparently all he wanted to say. She turned back to the man, trying to stop her heart from pounding—she could hear it thumping in her ears, and worried for a moment that he could hear it as well before realizing how absurd that was. With the steadiest and most formal voice she could muster, she said, “I am pleased to meet you again, Mr. Lancaster.”
Alice stepped away from the comfort of her desk and held out her hand to him. She regretted the necessity of the move away from her sanctuary, but knew it was expected and proper. Mr. Lancaster stepped forward and grasped her hand in greeting, bowing slightly toward her. The moment he touched her, she felt a jolt slide down her spine, causing her to blush. Having never shaken hands with him before, never actually touched him in any way, there had been no opportunity to prepare herself for that. A slight tremor of disappointment followed as she noticed that he seemed not to be affected by it as she was.
When Mr. Lancaster spoke, it only made things worse, and she seemed to forget everything of importance as she lost herself in it. His voice was deep and mellow and wrapped around her like a warm blanket. He said, “I apologize for my attire. I was checking on some properties and it took longer than I had expected. Please forgive me.”
She wanted to do quite a bit more than forgive him. He looked so appealingly rugged that she was glad she was still standing. Alice managed to nod and gesture to a seat, astonished at how miserably she was failing at staying professional. It would not do, but God help her, she had never had this type of uncontrollable reaction to any man—not even Ben.
And here she was swooning over her student’s caretaker. She could not even count all the problems with this situation, with her. What was she thinking, agreeing to this meeting? She looked over at Joe to remind her of her purpose. She would need to focus on him, and not on this storybook hero that was his guardian.
Fortunately or unfortunately, she didn’t know which, the man spoke again. “It is lovely to see you as well, Miss Crenshaw. I thank you for taking the time to meet with me.”
The clip at the edge of his words intrigued her. It gave some indication of intelligence and education. She wanted to hear it more.
Alice quickly retreated behind her desk once again, now that they had dispensed with the formalities. She sat down in her chair, mostly because her legs would no longer hold her. Thomas—Mr. Lancaster, she reminded herself immediately, as she had no reason to use anything but his formal name—took the cue and pulled a chair from one of the student worktables, dropping his body into it with such a lithe motion it made a small ball of fire light in her belly. She wished she was anywhere else but under his penetrating gaze.
At least when she had met him before there had been other people nearby, distractions and barriers. Now, with all that gone, she felt as if she was too close to the sun and bound to get burnt to a crisp if she wasn’t careful.
After taking another moment to ensure that her voice would not betray the strange wash of emotions flowing through her, she said in her kindest voice, “Joe, dear, will you step outside please?”
The last thing she wanted was to be completely alone with this intoxicating man, but she knew that the sooner they discussed whatever he had come here to discuss, he could leave and she would be able to catch her breath at last. Joe stood up immediately and said, “Yes, ma’am,” starting toward the door.
His uncle added, “You can check on Hamlet. He’ll be carrying both of us on the way back, so make sure the saddle is cinched tight.”