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Rose(9)

By´╝ÜLeigh Greenwood



“Then you are alone.”

“Yes.”

“Why do you want to leave Austin?”

An ironic look filled her eyes.

“Ever since my father died, I have been like a pariah in this town. No respectable woman will speak to me, much less invite me into her home. No man will treat me any differently from the way Luke treated me this morning. No one in this town would lift a finger to keep me from starving.”

“But you don’t have to worry about that, not as long as you have a job.”

Rose hadn’t intended to tell George everything—she had wanted to keep this shame to herself—but she could tell he was determined to reject her. She could also tell he was attracted to her. She could feel it.

“Dottie fired me this morning. She said she couldn’t afford any more fights because of me.”

George swore softly but with considerable vigor. “You mean she fired you because of me?”

Rose nodded hesitantly. Dottie hadn’t meant it that way, but it worked out to the same thing. She hated to use George’s better instincts against him, but they seemed her only weapon.

“She said she couldn’t afford to have people breaking up her place.”

After another string of curses, George sat back to think. He found himself on the horns of an unusual dilemma. Duty told him to do exactly what his desire told him to do: hire Rose.

But the common sense that had helped him survive four years of bloody combat screamed at him to take Peaches McCloud, the Widow Hanks, even Berthilda Huber. Choose Rose and he would be tossed into an emotional maelstrom without so much as an oar.

“Is there anything else I ought to know?”

He meant it as a rhetorical question, something to take up time while he tried to force himself to remember all the reasons why he should choose Peaches.

She looked a little embarrassed. “I want you to put what we’ve said in writing.”

Rose seemed to cringe, as though she feared he would get up and walk out. He had a strong impulse to do just that. Why did he continue to waste time on this woman?

“You don’t trust me?”

“Yes, I do,” Rose said, a little surprised to realize she really did.

“But you would still want a written contract?”

“Yes.”

Why did she insist? If he had made up his mind to choose someone else, it wouldn’t matter. If he decided to ignore her contract, she probably wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. Still, she wanted something on paper, something written out that she could see. When she handed him a pen and some paper she found in Dottie’s kitchen, he accepted it without demur.

“Let’s see. I, George Washington Randolph—yes, I was named after a president—agree to hire Rose…”

“Thornton. Rose Elizabeth Thornton.”

“…Elizabeth Thornton on the fifteenth of June…”

“Make it tomorrow.”

“…sixteenth of June, eighteen hundred sixty-six, to keep house for the Randolph men. She will be expected to cook, clean, wash, and generally see that the house runs smoothly.” George paused, but Rose had no changes to make. “In exchange she will have a room of her own, be paid each month in gold, be taken to Austin once a quarter, and returned to town if the contract is broken.” George turned the paper around so Rose could read what he had written.

“Now you need to put down my part,” she said.

“Why?”

“I can’t expect you to make a promise if I’m not prepared to do the same.”

“You’d better write it,” George said, pushing the paper toward Rose.

“I, Rose Elizabeth Thornton, agree to cook, clean, wash, and generally provide for the needs of George Washington Randolph, and his six brothers.” Rose signed her name and date. “There,” she said, showing the paper to George.

“I think that covers everything.”

“There’s something else,” Rose said.

“What now?” Impatience and annoyance scraped in his voice. Only the look in her eyes kept him from tearing the paper into tiny pieces.

Rose felt humiliated, but she also felt desperate.

“I owe some money.”

“To whom?”

“The undertaker.”

There seemed no end to this woman’s requests.

“How much?”

“Fifty dollars?”

“How could you run up such a sum?”

“I wanted Daddy buried next to Mother. The army wouldn’t pay for it.”

Damn those big eyes! Why did every explanation make him feel like a bigger heel than before?

“If I hire you, I’ll settle your debts,” he said, getting to his feet and handing her the written agreement, this time being careful not to look into her eyes.

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