Charity looked up as Miss Vonnie ambled over to the wash tub. She’d finished the six sets of sheets and was working on the personal clothes of each girl. Her back and shoulders ached, but for the week the group camped here, Sammy and Sadie would eat more than beans and biscuits, and she would have money for more supplies to move on to the next town hiring a teacher. Ray and Jane might not like she and the children had taken up with a group of prostitutes, but they'd run out of options. Doing laundry was better than starving.
“Charity?” Miss Vonnie’s voice startled her from her reveries.
She dried her hands on her apron and shifted away from the washboard. “Yes?”
“Mr. Jamison would like to meet you.”
Jamison. Could the woman who turned the school board against her have changed her mind? Hope swelled in her chest. The woman’s cold eyes and even colder heart asking for proof Sadie and Sammy were her niece and nephew and not her children had speared her with mortification. She would have had to have been pregnant at fourteen to be their mother.
“Did he say why?” She tucked loose strands of hair behind her ears and wiped a hand across her perspiring brow.
The older woman held up a coin. “He gave me this to talk to you.” She grasped Charity’s hand and placed the coin in it.
“He paid to talk to me?” Anger swirled in her stomach and infused her neck and ears with heat. She peered past Miss Vonnie and nearly choked. It was the handsome man who held the door for her when she left the school after the interview. His smiling brown eyes had given her a measure of comfort after having her character attacked. Did he believe as his mother? That she was of low moral conscience.
She held the coin between her fingers, grasped her skirt in the other hand, and marched over to the man. Stopping far enough back she didn’t have to tip her head too much to look into his face, she held out the coin. “I don’t know you and you sure don’t know me if you think you have to buy my time to talk with me.”
“Charity, it was—” Miss Vonnie started, but Charity cut her off by slicing her hand through the air.
“I take it Mrs. Jamison of the Clancy school board is a relation? Did she send you here to gloat?” Charity fisted her hand on her hips and glared at Mr. Jamison. It wasn’t a hardship to keep her eyes feasting on his curly blond hair, brown eyes, and square chin. The hard part was remaining mad while staring into his perplexed eyes.
“She’s my mother. And I didn’t come here to verify her accusations.”
She tilted her head and gave him an “I don’t believe you” snort.
“I came at my father’s request to make sure Miss Vonnie is treating our hands fairly. But I recognized you from the school and wanted to see how you’re doing.”
The honesty in his deep voice chipped away at her huff. “Why do you care?”
He smiled and her knees lost all the starch she’d shorn them up with in anger.
“Let’s just say, I like to prove my mother wrong. But…” He looked around at the scantily clad women, then cast his gaze to her wagon set off from the rest where Sammy and Sadie were playing. “I’m thinking my mother may have been right this time.”
“How dare you!” She threw the coin at his chest and spun, stomping toward the creek. If she stood near that man any longer she was sure she’d have said something that would have confirmed his assumptions. Her mother, and later her brother-in-law, were continually cautioning her on the colorful language she’d picked up from the local boys while growing up.
Her anger took her all the way to the creek. She paced up and down the bank hidden from view of the camp. The secluded spot was where the women came to bathe and cool off in the hot August afternoons.
She sat down on a rock. Her thoughts immediately went to Mr. Jamison. Any woman with a breath of life in her would find the man easy to look at. She sighed. Don’t go thinking anything other than he’s an enemy. He as much as said he believed his mother by offering money to talk to me. Her anger sparked again at the affront. How dare he… Why hadn’t Miss Vonnie rejected the money?
“Can we start over?” The deep voice shot her to her feet. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” He grasped her arm, steadying her swaying body.
Her head whooshed, and her heart slammed into her ribs at his gentle grip on her arm. Her gaze locked on his face. Concern and sincerity flashed in his eyes and reflected in the self-conscience smile on his lips. To break the hold he had on her senses, she glanced at his hand still on her arm. He let go and extended his hand.
“I’m Duke Jamison. My family owns the land Miss Vonnie and her girls are camped on.”
Reluctant to touch him again, she slowly extended her hand. He grasped her fingers and drew her knuckles to his lips. The softness of his lips and warmth of his breath, stole her air. She stared into his eyes which lit with amusement.
“And you are?”
She tugged her hand from his, tucking it against her quivering stomach. Why was this man triggering a plethora of reactions? She stared into his waiting face. A simple patient smile curved his lips. What had he asked? Racing through the last few minutes, she captured his question.
“Charity Bowen.” She scowled. “But you know that. I’m sure your mother would have mentioned my name since you seem to know everything else she thought about me.” Anger. Yes, much better than the other emotions he tangled in her.
“My mother merely mentioned they’d turned down an applicant. When I first saw you I didn’t realize you were the teacher they were interviewing.” He waved an arm back toward the camp. “And finding you here, I wasn’t sure you were the same person.”
She walked away from him, before her temper took over.
“Did I say something that upset you?” His voice came from only a step behind her.
“Stop following me.” She spun around and nearly banged her nose on his chest. Her neck hurt tipping her head back to peer into his face. Charity took two steps back. “Why don’t you just ride back to your ranch and tell your mother ‘guess who I found working for Miss Vonnie’.”“It’s not my habit to prove my mother correct. In fact, I enjoy proving her wrong.”