Copyright ©2011 by Patricia Jager
Van worked hard to wash away the images of the men handling Tessa like she was a whore. He'd witnessed the fear and humiliation in her large green eyes. Now fear widened those same eyes. Only this fear was almost frantic.
"What's wrong?" He stepped closer.
"I-I…" She glanced at the building in front of them and then at her feet.
The calico cat slinked around the corner of the building, set its yellow eyes on Tessa, and trotted over, lacing back and forth around her ankles.
"You and the cat seem to be friends." The minute he spit the words out it dawned on him- Tessa was his squatter.
She bent, scooped the cat into her arms, and buried her face in the animal's thick fur. Van's heart squeezed.
"I have a feeling it's your pallet in my storeroom." He motioned to the cat when her face and wide eyes appeared over its back. "The cat and I met before. In the back room."
She sucked in air then coughed. The cat launched out of her arms. Tears streamed down her rosy cheeks.
Van slipped an arm around her and maneuvered her into the building, away from the prying eyes peering through the saloon doors and from the street around them. Inside, he closed the door and moved to add wood to the potbelly stove he'd started before heading to the saloon.
She stood just inside the door, huddled in his coat, the whole time he added two sticks of wood and placed a chair beside the stove.
"Sit and get warm." He maneuvered her to the chair and she sat.
"W-why are you doing this?" she asked, gazing up at him, searching his face.
He could stare into her spring green eyes—round and wondering like an innocent child—all day.
"You didn’t look like you wanted those men pawing you, and I need help setting up and running my shop." And I can't let your life be awful because of me.
"Who are you? Why are you here? In Pleasant Valley?"
Van swallowed the wad of shame strangling his throat and studied the stove. She deserved the truth but would she understand his part in her father's death? He wouldn't know until he told her. He looked her square in the eyes.
"I lived in Pleasant Valley some years back and after learning a trade decided to return and reconnect with family." There until she heard his name that should suffice.
"Who's your family? I've been around here my whole life I pry know them." Tessa pulled his coat tighter around her shoulders.
The action reminded him of the men at the saloon and her scant clothing. "Why don’t you go back and change into your clothes. I'll get a pot of coffee going. Then we'll sit down and discuss what I see as your job." He turned his back to her and dug in the box he'd placed by the stove. The old battered pot he used for shop coffee was in it somewhere.
The cat's purring and the soft skim of her shoes across the wood floor faded.
He ran a hand over the back of his neck. The muscles started knotting when she'd asked about his family. Damn! Sooner or later he'd have to tell her, but it would be best if he could keep it quiet until she fully trusted him and learned to see he wasn't the same boy who raised havoc on the town just to get his father riled.