Cameo Courtships

Cameo CourtshipsCameo Courtships

A Family Heirloom Inspires Romance

In 1851, a special cameo is gifted by Queen Victoria to Letitia Newton, who, though considered an old maid, meets the perfect gentleman moments after donning it. Told by the queen that the cameo is to be shared, Letitia gifts the “Victoria Cameo” to a woman in her family, hoping adventure and romance will follow each of its subsequent wearers.

 

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Taming Petra by Jennifer Uhlarik

Chapter 1

Cambria Springs, Colorado Territory—1875

“Buckskin Pete Hollingsworth!”

The gruff male voice froze Pete’s tracks. All around the crowded street, people stopped, and the atmosphere shifted. Tension climbed. What was this—someone wishing to start a gunfight? The voice wasn’t a familiar one. But such details were hardly important to those cocksure young bucks who fancied themselves gunfighters. They’d look for anyone with a reputation bigger than theirs and call them out in the hopes of garnering a little fame.

And in the last two years, the name of Buckskin Pete had become known about those parts—though not as a gunfighter.

Gripping the rifle barrel in one hand, Pete blew out a breath and turned, scanning the crowd in a blink.

“Who’s asking?”

“I am!” A man of about eighteen stepped into the street from outside the Wells Fargo office. “Been looking for you for a month.”

A month. What on earth for? “State your business.”

There’s a couple packages waiting inside for one Petra Jayne Breaux. That’s you, ain’t it?”

At the mention of her proper legal name, a chuckle rippled through the crowd, and any number of folks along the street shifted anxious glances between her and the gent.

Heat and ire flashed through her at this uppity stranger exposing her true identity, especially overpackages. Just how had he figured it out, anyway? Shoving the thoughts aside, she quickly tamped down the unwelcome feelings and strolled toward the Wells Fargo office. She stopped a single pace in front of the brash man.

“Petra…Pete…one and the same. Now what about these packages?”

The fella waved toward the office, and Petra walked to the door, pausing just outside.

“Lemme get the door for you, Pete!” A grizzled old fella with unkempt white mutton chops, wearing threadbare rags, and stinking of stale sweat and whiskey stepped up to turn the knob.

“Get out the way, old man!” The Wells Fargo fella barked.

She turned on him. “You shut your mouth. A proper gentleman’s supposed to open the door for a lady.”

He gave her a contemptuous glance, eyes lingering on her buckskin trousers, then swept upward to the Colt Peacemaker and the Indian tomahawk hanging from her belt, and finally stalled as he looked at her short-cropped hair. “You ain’t nothing close to a lady.”

She quickly schooled her expression, putting on a placid smile. “You don’t say…”

“Think I just did.”

Pete shrugged. “Guess you’re entitled to your opinion.” As she turned back to the fella with the unkempt mutton chops, he swung the door open and stepped out of her way.

“Why, thank you, kind sir!” Pete grinned, tucked her right foot behind the left and, rifle in hand, pretended to hold the folds of an imaginary dress. She executed a prim and perfect curtsy, though as she straightened, she drove the butt of her rifle backward into the Wells Fargo gent’s gut.

He went to a knee with a loud oof. The men in the crowd guffawed and applauded, along with some of the women, though the more polite ladies turned their noses up and scurried away, mortified at her uncouth antics. Without missing a beat, she stepped inside and her whiskered friend shut the door behind her, causing the bell to jingle.

“Be right there…” someone hollered from a back room as she paced toward the counter.

By the time the owner of the second voice stepped into view, the first limped into the room, holding his belly.

“Can I help you?” The second man was older than the first by a good ten years.

“Does this yahoo work for you?”

“Why?” He drew out the question as he darted a look at the man.

She glared in the younger man’s direction. “If he does, you might ought to teach him some manners. Ain’t wise to insult your customers.”

The fella behind the counter turned a sharp look at his co-worker, the muscle along his jaw popping. “I see. I’ll be sure to remind him of that.” The older man returned his attention to her. “Please…forgive any foolish things he might’ve said. How may I help you?”

“Your impertinent friend there says you got a couple packages for Petra Jayne Breaux. That’s me…”

“Ahh, yes, we do.” The gent smiled. “You’ve had us flummoxed, ma’am. We’ve been trying to figure out for weeks who Miss Petra Jayne Breaux is so she could take delivery.”

“Your mystery’s solved, although I’ll thank you to keep that other name to yourself. People round these parts know me as Pete Hollingsworth, and I’d like to keep it that way.”

He mumbled a pleasant assent and fetched two small wooden boxes from a safe. He set them down and turned a book to face her. Flipping to an earlier page, he pointed to a particular line. “You’ll need to sign, if you don’t mind. The first one’s here.”

Pete took the pen he offered and scratched out her signature. The gent slid the smaller box toward her. “This one came for you maybe a month ago.” He turned to another, later page and indicated where to sign, then slid the slightly larger box next to the first. “And this one came yesterday.”

A wave of homesickness swept over her as she scratched out her signature. Even without cracking the lids, she knew their origin. Pittsburgh. Her family. Probably because they’d been addressed to Petra Breaux, not Buckskin Pete. In the three years since she’d left home, she’d not had the courage to tell her mother about her unconventional life. It would only break Mama’s heart and cause Papa no end to his worry.

“Thanks for doing business with Wells Fargo…Miss Hollingsworth.”

“Pleasure.” She stashed the smallest box in her coat pocket and tucked the larger one under her arm. Rifle gripped firmly in her left hand, she turned to leave.

The other fella stood between her and the door, eyes smoldering. She tried to brush past him, but he caught her just above the elbow. Pete’s heart raced as he hauled her close, the box clattering to the floor in the process.

“You best watch yourself,” he hissed so softly only she might hear. His breath stunk of liquor.

“Bice!” The fella behind the counter barked. “Unhand the lady and get out! You’re fired.”

When Bice didn’t release her, she swung the rifle around and jammed the barrel under his jaw. Stock braced against her left thigh, she cocked the hammer one-handed and shifted her finger toward the trigger guard.

“You heard the man. Let me go.” Blast it all. As much as she tried to keep it steady, her voice—along with the rest of her—shook.

Bice stiffened, eyes rounding, and he loosened his grip.

Petra jerked free and took a big step backward, settling the rifle in both hands. She trained it on his chest. “Pick up the box.”

He did, ever so slowly, his movements tender, as if he was still feeling her rifle butt in his belly.

“Now hand it to your friend and back away.”

The other gent rounded the counter to receive the item, and Bice passed it over.

“I don’t know what your issue is with me, Mister, but I want no truck with you. Stay out of my way, and I’ll steer clear of yours. Understood?”

“Ain’t natural—a woman dressed as a man,” Bice sneered.

Hesitating, she laughed. “Is that what’s got you so flustered? Mister, I dress for the work I do. Scouting, hunting, riding, traipsing through these mountains. Things that don’t lend themselves to frills and lace. Not that it’s any of your concern. Now back up!”

Once Bice stood at the far side of the room, the other gent handed her the box again, and she nodded, never taking her eyes from her nemesis.

“Thank you kindly for your help.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Pete backed toward the door where she uncocked the rifle’s hammer and slipped outside. Only when she’d lost herself in the crush of bodies moving along the boardwalk did she shift her mental focus from ornery old Bice to the boxes.

Typically, Mama and Papa sent letters—not anything larger. In her sporadic writings to them, she always said she was fine, didn’t need a thing. And she never mentioned her unconventional attire—a detail that would send her mother, an author of articles on both deepening one’s walk with God as well as fashion and domestic style articles, into heart palpitations. She also kept details of her unladylike job preferences and her chilly mountain cabin, small enough to fit inside any one room of Mama and Papa’s very comfortable Pittsburgh home, a secret. Papa had always been a wonderful provider. It would break their hearts to know the seeming lack, even squalor, of the life she’d chosen. Already, they asked in nearly every correspondence for her to return home soon.

Maybe one day she would, but not yet. Even three years later, the memories were still too raw, the grief too overwhelming. She wasn’t ready. She wasn’t strong enough.

Pete ducked onto a quieter cross-street and wandered to the livery down the block. She was anxious to know what Mama and Papa had sent, but she wasn’t about to open the boxes in plain view of God and everyone. Instead, she ducked into the stable and found the stall where her sorrel, Dunkin’, waited. Pete slipped inside with the silly horse and, once she’d given the gelding some attention, squatted in the corner out of sight.

She produced the boxes and balanced one on each knee. The fella in the Wells Fargo office said that the smaller one arrived first. Giving it a gentle shake, she heard a muffled rattle. She viewed the box from all angles. Along the seam between the box’s top and bottom halves, she found a bead of wax like the kind Mama and Papa sealed their letters with years ago. She drew her knife.

Pete ran the tip of the blade in between the halves of the box and, with a little prying, popped the seal. A small, folded paper tumbled out. She removed the velvet pouch that remained inside and snatched the paper from the floor so Dunkin’ wouldn’t try to eat it, then laid the box in the straw.

She loosened the pouch’s drawstring and shook the little bag. A key dropped into palm. Nothing else. Her brow furrowing, she unfolded the note.

 

Dearest Petra,

Keep this in a very safe place. It will unlock a special gift I’m sending to you for your birthday.

                                    Love, Mama

 

Her birthday. Mind spinning, she calculated the date. It was…today!Her twenty-second. Oh goodness. How had she forgotten? Probably because she kept to herself and had no one with whom she might celebrate.  Except for Mama sending her special gift, the day would’ve passed unnoticed.

Stunned, she turned her attention to the second box. This one contained no sign of sealing wax along the lid’s edge. Instead, it had a small keyhole in which the key fit perfectly. Holding her breath, she turned it and gently opened the lid. Inside was another velvet pouch, and beneath it, another folded paper. This time, she unfolded the note first.

 

My dearest girl,

Happy twenty-second birthday. I had intended to give this to you on your twenty-first, but I held on, hoping that I could watch you open it in person. Since that hasn’t happened, I’m sending it to you for this year’s celebration. Surely you’ll remember the stories behind it. It is time, my daughter. Wear it proudly, and when the time comes, you’ll know which person you should pass it to.

                           All my love for your birthday, Mama

 

Oh goodness. It wasn’t… Was it? Perspiration dampening her forehead, Pete steeled herself and opened the velvet bag. Ever so gently, she shook the contents into her palm, and out slid the cameo that had once belonged to Queen Victoria herself. Made from gray agate, set in gold, with half-pearls adorning the gold setting’s edge, it was a breathtaking piece. And having once adorned the clothing of royalty…it was priceless.

“Mama, no…” She stared at the beautiful jewel, mind awash in memories. This lovely had been pinned at Mama’s throat all throughout Petra’s life. She and her brothers had heard the tale of how it had been given to Aunt Letitia many years ago by the Queen, and as sweet Aunt Letty had worn it, she’d fallen in love with and married her handsome suitor, Peter Hollingsworth, for whom Petra was named. And Aunt Letitia had passed the cameo on to Mama, who reacquainted herself with Papa, a childhood friend from Sunday School, and fell in love soon after she received it.

“Why would you do this, Mama?” She was the last person who should possess such a treasure. She, Buckskin Pete, didn’t deserve such beauty. Not her, and not out here. She’d send it back, first thing tomorrow. Surely, she’d break Mama’s heart all over again…perhaps even seal her fate in never being able to go home again. But this was too much of an heirloom for her to be entrusted with.

Hands shaking, she attempted to slide the cameo back into its pouch, though before she could, light footsteps shuffled near, and the stall door opened slightly. A breathless, sweaty boy of about nine backed into the opening. She watched as he eased the door closed, peeking over the top of the door the whole time, then ducked down.

“Mickey.” She jabbed the boy’s shoulder.

Mickey Miles sucked in a startled breath and spun to face her, causing Dunkin’ to whinny and prance. “Hey, Pete.”

Pete clutched the cameo and pouch tightly and rose to calm the horse. The larger box tumbled from her knee into the thick bed of straw. Mickey also stood to avoid the horse’s hooves.

“Shhhh, Dunkin’. Nothing to be afraid of.” She gave the big animal a vigorous rub along his neck. Once he settled, she turned on the boy again. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

A handsome stranger rounded the corner and stopped of a sudden near the stall, peering around as if he’d lost something. At the sight, Pete pinned the boy with a hard look, just knowing the fella looked for her little friend.

“What’ve you done, Mickey?”

The gentleman—tall, muscular, with dark hair peeking from under a dark Stetson hat—turned her way. “Pardon, ma’am, but have you seen a boy, about eight or ten years old, come this way?”

With Dunkin’ fully settled again, she ducked under the horse’s neck, latched onto Mickey’s upper arm, and pushed the door wide with her other hand.

“Is this the one you’re looking for?”