Every instinct George had developed during four years of fighting warned him of danger, and he came instantly alert, ready to do battle.
At the same time, he felt disgusted with his weakness. He’d never make a good army officer if he couldn’t make decisions without letting sentiment affect his thinking.
“Would the Bon Ton be suitable?”
“Don’t have nothing to do with her,” Sulphur Tom called out just as George stepped toward the edge of the boardwalk. “She’s Yankee spawn.”
Yankee! For the briefest instant George froze in his tracks. An impulse made him turn to Sulphur Tom. “Most of us came to Texas from somewhere else. Where were you born?”
For an answer the old man directed a stream of tobacco at George’s feet.
George chuckled easily. “Above the Mason-Dixon line, I gather.”
The crowd parted to let him pass.
The walk to the Bon Ton seemed endless to Rose. She turned her words over and over in her mind, trying to decide how best to arrange them. Her future rested on the decision of this now cold and formal man.
Had she made a mistake? He didn’t seem anything like the wonderfully strong, cheerfully chivalrous man who knocked Luke Kearney down, or the gentle man who had coaxed her to sit at his table and ordered her to eat while she restored her shattered composure.
Now he seemed more like the intimidating man who had forced Dottie to wait on her and Jeb and Charlie to clean up the mess.
Still, she had seen another side to him. She knew another man lived inside that shell. She knew the other man came out once in a while. Maybe away from Austin he would come out more often.
“I guess you’re wondering why I wanted to talk to you in private,” she said as they settled into chairs at one of the tables.
He smiled. “I assumed it was a natural reluctance to discuss your affairs in front of the whole town.”
Rose relaxed a little. He didn’t seem so forbidding now. “I just needed to ask a few questions about the position.”
“There’s not much to understand.”
“Maybe not for you, but it’s a little different for a woman.”
George didn’t respond.
“You want a housekeeper, someone to cook the meals, keep the house clean, and wash all the clothes.”
“Yes, but how do I know you can handle the job? Serving food in a restaurant isn’t the same as keeping house.”
Rose sighed wearily. “I’ve been doing those things my whole life. After my mother died, I lived with a family named Robinson. Mrs. Robinson was always having babies, so the housework settled on me. I didn’t have to, Daddy paid her to keep me, but she was very kind. Besides, she taught me to cook. She was wonderful at it. There was nobody in Austin any better. I used to cook when I started at the Bon Ton, but Dottie moved me out front hoping I would bring in a few extra customers.”
She wouldn’t tell him of the humiliation of having to act as a draw for people like Luke. She also wouldn’t tell him that Dottie was the only person in Austin who would give her a job.
“That sounds sufficient to me,” George said.
“I have a few requirements,” Rose said tentatively. “Nothing I expect you’ll object to,” she qualified when she saw him stiffen up. “Naturally I require a room of my own. I want to be paid each month in gold. I want to be able to come to town at least three times a year. I also expect you to bring me back to Austin when the contract is ended.”
“I don’t see anything unreasonable in that,” George said. He started to rise.
“I’m not through yet.”
“What more do you want?”
“I rather imagined you wanted an explanation of Sulphur Tom’s remark.”
“It’s not necessary.”
Rose stood. “Then you’ve already decided against me.”
George opened his mouth to deny her accusation, but the words wouldn’t come out.
“I know you fought in the war,” Rose said, her lower lip trembling, “but I didn’t think you would condemn me without at least hearing what I have to say.”
“My brother, Jeff, and I both fought in the war, but neither of us would condemn anyone without a hearing.” George sat back down. “Tell me.”
Rose seated herself again.
“My father was a career army officer,” she said proudly, “a graduate of West Point.”
Rose noticed the rigidity in George’s face, and her heart sank. Okay, she didn’t have a chance, but she would tell him her story anyway. At least he would know the truth before he rejected her.
“He was sent to Texas during the war with Mexico. He liked it so much better than New Hampshire he settled here. But when the war broke out, he fought for the union . He distinguished himself in the battle for Vicksburg. He also died there.”