Millie tore the bonnet from her head and dashed it to the ground. Then stomped on it for good measure.
Her pickaxe and shovel were missing. For the fourth time in as many weeks.
She scuttled down the rock-covered slope from her family’s mine, careful to raise the hem of her dress so she didn’t trip, and splashed across the creek to John Fulton’s claim. As expected, she found him panning for gold, her tools propped on a nearby boulder.
She marched past him and snatched them up. Dust flew as she turned to leave, but he blocked her path.
“Out of my way, lunkhead.” She swung her pickaxe at his auburn beard.
He stepped back, his mouth twisting, and caught the shaft with one hand. He used the momentum of her swing to pull her, and she fell against his broad chest with an oof.
“I see you got my message.” He grinned at her right hand, which still clutched her pickaxe.
She answered with her left, swinging her shovel until it connected with his backside. He grunted but didn’t release his hold.
“Let me go.”
“Not until you say you’ll marry me.” Hazel eyes twinkled. “A gentleman deserves an answer.”
“You’re no gentleman.”
His smile, such as she could see behind his unkempt beard, evaporated. “I am a gentleman, Millicent Waverly.”
“Mayhap a gentleman of four outs.” She yanked herself from his hold. “Without wit, without money, without credit, and most certainly without manners.”
“As you say,” he doffed his dusty hat, “but take care. A proper gentleman is likely to want a lady, not a miner.”
As she stomped back to her father’s mine, a string of fitting responses to John’s taunt trundled through her thoughts. For the rest of the afternoon, his grinning face fueled each swing of her pickaxe.
On Saturday, Millie loaded her burro and traveled into town as usual. She found her sister preparing supper in the boarding house’s kitchen.
“Need any help?” Millie asked, savoring the aroma of meat and spices wafting through the air.
“Not until you’ve had a proper bath.” Clementine wrinkled her nose. “You smell like a grimy prospector. Shoo.”
In the past, Millie might have called over her shoulder “I am a grimy prospector,” but John Fulton’s comment still rankled. She headed upstairs where she found a washtub of warm water waiting. Millie rubbed herself raw with lye soap before washing her work clothes and hanging them to dry. She donned a dress and apron and headed downstairs, shoulders back and head up.
Take that, John Fulton.
Millie and Clementine worked in companionable silence. Clementine’s table burst with her boarders, unmarried men from town, and wealthier men from the mining camps. The fact Clementine was unmarried made her boarding house more popular than others in the vicinity. Men would pay a sizeable gold nugget for a meal cooked by a woman. The boarding house was becoming more profitable than their mine. No doubt Clementine would have ten proposals by the time the night was over.
Millie more than understood her sister’s dilemma. With the deficit of females in California, it was hard to know whether a man’s esteem was for a particular woman or any woman. Since their father’s passing last year, Millie had fended off dozens of marriage offers from prospectors because she couldn’t tell whether they were more interested in her or her mine.
As she cleared the table after dinner, a broad shouldered, clean shaven gentleman with dark red hair pulled Millie from her reverie. “How is it that a pretty lady like yourself is not yet married?”
She stared into brown and emerald eyes peppered with flecks of gold. “Have we met before?”
He stacked a set of plates and followed her into the kitchen. “I stayed here for a short time in April.”
At their appearance, Clementine rushed to take the dishes from his hands. “Thank you, but boarders aren’t required to clean up.”
“I don’t mind.”
“I appreciate that,” Clementine placed the dishes in the sink, “but it sets a bad precedent. The kitchen is off-limits to men.”
The gentleman tilted his head to Clementine. “I’ll leave on one condition. A kiss from your sister.”
Clementine bristled. “I’m not running that kind of establishment—”
“I agree.” Millie shot him a coquettish smile. A girl could lose herself panning for the gold flecks in those hazel eyes.
She closed her eyes and tilted her face upward. His breath, warm mint and leather, brushed against her mouth. Fingers tangled in her hair, pulling her lips to meet his in a kiss she felt from her scalp to the tips of her toes before it settled in her heart.
“Now will you marry me?” His voice cracked as he pulled away.
Millie’s eyes snapped open. There he was: a clean, shaven, well-dressed version of the most annoying man she’d ever me. “John Fulton!”
He met her gaze, unflinching. “When I came here in April, you didn’t spare me a glance. I staked a claim across the stream from yours to get to know you, but I had to steal your tools for you to take any notice of me. You can have the gentleman or the prospector; the choice is yours, Millie, but this is the last time I’m asking.”
The answer to her marriage dilemma was staring her in the face. John Fulton didn’t want any woman; he wanted her. And she wanted him. “I’ll marry you on one condition.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Name it.”
“Kiss me again.”
This story was inspired by Spark Magazine's upcoming "Wagon Trail Romance" issue (May 2018). It's my first romance story, and possibly my first historical as well. (I can't remember). I enjoyed the challenge. It's always fun to write something new to see if you can. :)
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