An Unlikely Hero
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Who in the hell came up with this asinine plan?
Dillon Reed grimaced at the stench of burning coal as he jammed the colonel’s telegram into his coat pocket. He cut his gaze across the station platform to the nearby locomotive. In a deluge of color, passengers descended the railcar’s iron steps; he kept his attention riveted on the opening.
An exasperated sigh escaped from between clenched teeth. He’d delivered the governor’s territorial reports to Washington in just under three weeks, a remarkable time, and he looked forward to a swift, unencumbered return home. But, when he’d checked the telegraph office for messages before heading out, this newest malarkey of an assignment waited. He’d also been instructed to shave and freshen-up prior to meeting this train from Boston, but Hell’s chambers would freeze solid before Dillon would make the effort. I’m an army scout, for Christ’s sake, not some damn nanny.
A grating responsibility rolled into focus when a peach-colored parasol, the signal he’d been awaiting, popped open to fill the train’s doorway. Dillon shoved from the depot’s wall and straightened, the crown of his slouch hat bumping a sign that read Washington, District of Columbia – The Capitol of Your Country. The plank swung back and forth on squeaky hinges. Heat fused with anger when his contact’s traveling boot glided to the first iron step. Good God, her entire foot could fit in his right hand. His gaze climbed a dark-green dress rigged with a ridiculous bustled contraption, raked over a fur encircling slender shoulders like a buffalo mane, then finally came to a stop on golden curls swirling upward into a tarnished knot. Atop the silken mass, a scrap of hat perched at a cockeyed angle. A dozen blue and green ribbons fluttered in the afternoon breeze with all the spectacle of a peahen.
Dillon’s throat tightened as the woman descended to the platform, radiant among the other travelers. Her ability to stand out in a crowd added another sting to the onerous assignment. For a full minute, he waited while she scanned the throng, anxiousness shadowing her face. Narrow of waist, she stood barely five feet tall…a good stiff wind would blow her over.
Another curse welled inside him.
The urge to walk away warred against every ounce of military commitment he possessed. What did he do to the colonel to deserve such wretched torment? Dillon straightened, then stepped from the shadows of the depot to collect his damnable…assignment.
Boots thumped against weathered wood as each stride echoed his resentment. How could this slip of lace endure the miles they’d have to travel, or the harsh sun of the desert? Christ Almighty, she’d end up sick or dead and slung over his saddle in no time. As his shadow darkened the woman’s diminutive form, he retrieved the telegram from his coat pocket, then tightened his jaw.
“Alma Talmadge?” he snapped.
She swung to face him, her eyes widening.
Dillon thrust the telegram forward, his words cleaving the air. “Per these instructions from your uncle, I’ve been assigned as your escort on the trip westward to Fort Lowell.”
A well-shaped brow arched with suspicion. Her mouth tightened as she abruptly scanned the words, her golden-tipped eyelashes raising and lowering with each haughty sweep. A moment later, her gaze lanced back to his. “I was told to expect a proper attendant.”
“Proper?” he snorted. “I’m as proper as you’re gonna get.”
Her attention riveted on his sweat-stained Stetson, then slid all the way down him to his scuffed-up cavalry boots. When their gazes reconnected, disgust dulled the spark in her indigo eyes. “But … you’re no gentleman.”
“Where we’re going, lady the last thing you’ll need is one of those dupes who can’t find his ass with both hands.”
Repulsion cascaded scarlet across her face. She pressed a dainty, lace-edged hankie to the column of her throat. “I cannot possibly travel with the unkempt likes of you. Y-You’re not even clean.”
The insistent urge to walk away blistered deeper. “The job is to deliver you safely to the fort…which I intend to do. Cleanliness does not increase my skill.”