“This is it.” The woman’s brittle, steel-like hair and sharp nose emphasised a character as crisp as her clipped English accent. “I don’t let just anybody stay here, you know.” She eyed Kid cautiously before she gave Heyes an accusing glare. “You did not tell me that your companion was a hobbledehoy.”
“Mrs. Plant, I am writing a perspective on the west and I need a guide. Mr. Jones is both courteous and honest.” He gave the reassuring smile of a man desperate not to spend another damp night camping out in the cold, April rain. “Besides, I’m here to cover the race and he knows one of the jockeys.”
Mrs. Plant gave a little sniff. “Well, I hold you responsible for his.”
She bustled towards the door. “Breakfast is at seven thirty sharp. DO NOT damage the new counterpane. I spent hours making that and I think it really sets off the room.” The door clicked shut behind her.
“What’s a counterpane?” hissed the Kid, scanning the room in confusion. “Does she mend windows?”
“Dunno, just don’t damage it. The town’s booked up because of the big race and it’s been pouring for nearly two weeks. We can’t get thrown out.”
“I don’t damage things,” muttered the Kid, indignantly. “This is just typical. You’ve got us the stupidest job on earth and now we’re staying with a stiff, crusty old...,” he dropped his bag on the bed. “What’s a hobbledythingy?”
“Just use your charm. It got us this job.”
The dimpled grin only served to irritate Kid more. “Matchmakers!?
What were you thinkin’?”
“It’s more of an introduction service. Conrad knows who he wants. We just have to get her to appreciate him, and you’ve got her ear since you helped her when her horse threw that shoe. Tell her how great he is and we get paid. It’s easy.”
“Heyes, he’s a five foot two jockey, in love with a five foot eleven Amazon. They’ve been introduced and she ain’t interested because they’d look ridiculous together. Men should give up when they can’t reach the cookies on the top shelf.”
“He adores her.” Heyes tilted his head. “She could do a lot worse – she’s from dirt poor farming stock and he’s got money from an uncle who was a beef baron.”
“I’ve never tried to convince a woman to like another man. I ain’t sure I can do it.”
“Sure you can, Kid. You do it for me all the time, without even realising it.” Heyes twinkled engagingly. “Conrad’s going to be the hero of the race, he’s well off, and he worships her. He’s got a sporting chance. Just try not to damage the counterpane.” He scratched his head and glanced around the room, “although it would help if we knew what the hell it was.”
“Does this mean I’m supposed to take this woman out and tell her how wonderful Conrad is?”
Heyes bounced on the bed testing it for comfort. “Why not? She’s got a lovely personality.”
Uncompromising blue eyes bored into his back. “So does Kyle, but I don’t want to take him on a picnic.”
Conrad Painting was a handsome man, with sparkling, chocolate eyes set in clear, olive skin, topped with dark, wavy hair. His diminutive stature was a boon in his career, but had caused him years of heartbreak. Even he wasn’t sure if he had thrown himself into his passion for horses to compensate for his lack of success in other areas. All he knew was that he had found it difficult to focus on anything since he had met Sabrina. He felt a pang of shame at paying someone to help him get her attention, but he was desperate.
She was special; and he was prepared to do just about anything to win her. He stood, tilting his head back, greeting the men to whom charm came so easily with a glittering smile as they walked into the saloon.
“We got in,” grinned Heyes. “The last room in town. Tough landlady though.”
Conrad nodded, pouring whiskey into the shot glasses and sliding them across the table towards them. “So? How do we start this?”
“Well, we’ve never done anything like this, so I guess we need to look at what attracts a woman.”
Conrad shrugged. “How would I know? How do you attract a woman?”
The partners exchanged a quizzical glance and shrugged. “Dunno?
We just talk to them and they give you the signal if they’re interested,” replied the Kid.
“What kind of signal?”
“They hold your gaze...”
Conrad frowned. “Muriel holds my gaze all the time...”
Heyes leaned forward. “That sounds promising. Why not concentrate on Muriel?”
“Because she’s seventy four. There must be more to it than that.”
“Well, it’s a kind of ‘come hither’ look, sort of like the look saloon girls give you when they see the money,” the Kid’s eyes narrowed and pouted his lips as he tried to give his best imitation of a love-struck maiden.
“If they look at you like that, jump on the nearest train,” chortled Heyes.
“He looks more like he put his back out jumping off one himself,”
Conrad’s shoulders slumped. “So how do you get them to give you the signal?”
Heyes arched his eyebrows. “Just be charming and gentlemanly.”
“I am. They pat me on the head and say I’m cute. I want to be desired; the man their mothers don’t want to leave them alone with... like you two.”
Kid’s stiffened. “I’m a perfect gentleman. I can be trusted with any woman.”
“Good, because I need you to tell Sabrina things about me that’ll get her interested.”
“How about - I love her and would do anything for her.”
Kid shrugged. “You’ve already done that and she ain’t interested.
How about ‘treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen?’”
Heyes sipped thoughtfully at his drink. “Nah, if that really worked; Custer would have been invited to dinner instead of Little Big Horn. I think we’ve got to find out what she’s interested in. Thaddeus, that’s your job. You go and see her first thing in the morning.”
“Let me help.”
Sabrina looked into the blue eyes before straightening up and swinging the sack over her broad shoulders. “I can manage. Customers are supposed to come through the front door of the store.”
“I came to see you,” Kid gave her an engaging smile. “I guess the big race brings in lots of customers.”
“It sure does.” She dumped the sack of flour on top of the others and straightened up, fixing Kid with serious grey eyes. “So? What do you want?”
“I wondered if you were going to the race. Conrad’s the favourite and he’s bound to win.”
She tucked a tendril of light brown hair behind her ear. “What are you up to Mr. Jones? I’m not your type. A woman can tell.”
He shifted uncomfortably in embarrassment. Her square jaw and wide mouth made her more striking than conventionally pretty, but she was right. Sabrina was not a woman he would have called on by choice. “Conrad would be real keen to see you at the winning post.”
She rolled her eyes. “Can’t that man take a telling? We’d be a laughing stock. Don’t you think it’s hard enough being taller than most men, without pairing me up with him? We’d look like freaks.”
“He’s fairly well off. His wife wouldn’t have to carry sacks.”
She put her hands on her hips. “Look, maybe if he was taller... Or I was shorter? Who knows – but we are who we are.”
“There’ll be food, and a band – all kinds of entertainment. My partner and I will keep you company until the race is over.”
“The music sounds tempting, I love music...”
“Apart from his height, what have you got against him?”
Sabrina shrugged. “It’s not him. I’m just not strong enough to even try this.”
Kid shrugged. “You’re a real lucky woman, Miss Fontana.
“A truly kind and genuine man thinks you are the whole world to him, and you just dismiss it because of what a few folks might think. Lots of women would be overjoyed to find a man who worships the ground they walk on, and he’s so sure you’re the one for him he won’t give up. Yup, you’re real lucky.”
Sparks of curiosity flared in her eyes. “Why does that make me lucky?”
“You turn your back on it so lightly. You must have somebody real special.”
He watched his words land, her fingers subconsciously twisting the fabric of her apron as she bit into her lip. “What time is the race, Mr. Jones? I don’t suppose it would hurt to cheer him on.”
“She’s coming?” Conrad’s delighted eyes danced at the prospect of being cheered over the finishing line by the woman he loved. “She must see me lift that cup. Did she say anything else?”
Kid looked quizzically at a breadstick. “Music. She loves music.”
Conrad’s eyes lit up. “She does? I’ve played piano since I was a little boy.”
Heyes gave him a pat on the back. “This time tomorrow night she’ll be eating out of your hand.”
Conrad sighed. “No, but it’s a start. She needs to overcome this height thing. It really bothers her.” He waved over to the waitress. “Gentlemen, my mother is Italian and this restaurant is run by my aunt and uncle. Tonight you will dine like kings. I know you can’t guarantee she’ll come around, but getting her to spend time with me, getting to know me – that’s what’ll make the difference.”
A doe-eyed waitress put three shot glasses and a bottle on the table before dropping her dark head and kissing Conrad on the top of then head. “Good luck tomorrow, Tresoro.”
“Gentlemen, this is my cousin, Tizianna. This is Thaddeus Jones and Joshua Smith.”
The girl nodded warmly at them before sashaying seductively back to the bar. “What a friendly family,” purred Heyes.
“Have you ever tried grappa?” asked Conrad.
Kid examined the bottle, but there was no label. “Never even heard of it. What is it?”
“It’s made from grapes. We make it ourselves.”
“Grapes?” Heyes took a sip. It was definitely liquor, but had a faint fruity aftertaste. “Yeah, it’s good. I can drink this quite happily.” He downed his glass and lifted the bottle to top up Conrad’s empty glass.
“No thanks,” he covered his glass. “I’m racing tomorrow.”
“Ah, come on,” urged Kid. “It’s a fruit drink. How bad can it be?”
Conrad sat back, a knowing smile playing over his lips. “Enjoy yourselves, but it’s stronger than you think. I’ll just lay off for tonight.”
The grappa flowed like water, the mouth-watering food was plentiful, and the company of Conrad’s stunning cousins tempting; but it was all topped off by a musical diversion around the piano to round off the evening. Conrad had undersold his musical skills – he had the touch of a concert pianist and the soaring, ringing tones of an operatic tenor.
Eventually, two merry ex-outlaws staggered and weaved their way back to Mrs. Plant’s lodging house; stumbling, humming and snickering through the darkness to their room.
Heyes buried his head under the covers, but the movement seemed to stimulate an unfortunate series of events. His stomach started to heave, his gullet spasmed, and his mouth started to water. He opened his eyes; his brain screaming silently at the vicious assault of the daylight on his aching eyeballs. He ran for the chamber pot, retching and trying desperately to swallow down the swirling contents about to be ejected from his protesting belly.
Too late. It was all over the floor.
What was he going to tell Mrs. Plant? He grabbed the bedspread and mopped up the worst, before using water and soap from the washstand to clean down the floor boards. He looked guiltily around, content that he had successfully covered his tracks. He could sneak the quilt out later to get it laundered and she’d never know the difference.
Kid stirred. “Feelin’ bad, eh?”
“No worse than you I guess.”
Kid chuckled. “Hey, I ate more than you, so I lined my stomach.
How strong was that grappa?”
“Don’t! I need to go to the pharmacy to get something for my head before we go to the race. Let’s hope there’s not too much shouting.”
Heyes’ worst fears were realised. He cringed in pain at the screaming, yelling and hollering which accompanied Conrad and his mount across the finishing line, well ahead of the field. He leapt from his mount, punching the air in delight and cut his way through the crowd towards Sabrina. He bowed his head gallantly and took her hand, kissing it gently.
“Thank you for coming. This has made this the most special day for me. I can’t tell you how much it means.”
“Look! He’s kissing the only part he can reach,” snickered a passing blonde.
The Kid fixed her with his most chilling glare, hearing Sabrina choke back a sob. “If she was a man I’d crack her on the jaw!” he snapped.
“That’s Angela Capaldi,” muttered Sabrina. “She’s made my life a misery since school.”
“Capaldi?” murmured Conrad quietly. “She’s singing later, isn’t she? I saw her name on the programme.”
Conrad clasped her hand. “Please, don’t. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the years it’s that there’s all the difference in the world between short and small. There’s more than one way to cut these folks down to size. Please. Don’t let her win. At least stay for a while.”
The Kid nodded. “He’s right, Miss Fontana. Folks like that are bullies. You’ve got to hold your head high and ignore them.”
“Hold my head high? Is that some sort of crack?”
“No! I would never...”
Sabrina eyed him uneasily. “I’ll stay for a while, just so she doesn’t think she’s won.”
“Ladies and gentlemen, we would now like to present Angela Capaldi to sing an aria from ‘Rigoletto.’ For our listening pleasure and to make today doubly special, our very own champion, Conrad Painting, will accompany her on the piano forte.”
Conrad placed a hand over Sabrina’s. “Please stay and listen.
Promise me you won’t go until I’ve finished.”
Sabrina chewed on her bottom lip. “I don’t want to listen to her showing off. I’ve had this since I was a child.”
He grinned engagingly. “Trust me? Please?”
She gave a reluctant nod. “Fine. I’m going right afterwards. Little Miss Perfect has had a lifetime of applause. I don’t need to hear any more.”
Conrad’s face split into a wide smile before darting to the stage where Angela was primping and preening before her performance. He allowed his expert hands to explore the keys in an impressive display which made Sabrina stop short and arch an eyebrow in surprise, before Angela attempted the first few haltering words.
She stopped holding up a hand. “You’re in the wrong key.”
Conrad shook his head. “Nope. ‘Caro Nome’ in ‘E.’ Do I sound like I don’t know what I’m doing?”
She pouted, starting again. “Caro nome che il mio cor...” She stopped, stamping her foot in anger. I told you! It’s in the wrong key.”
“No. You are.”
The audience was staring to get restless. “You know NOTHING about classical music, you... you... goblin!”
“Conrad’s our champion!” Yelled someone from the crowd. People started booing and hooting at her to get off, before ‘somebody’ threw popcorn.
“I saw that, Thaddeus,” hissed Heyes.
“Good. I hope she did too,” grinned the Kid.
The deluge started. Bread rolls, cakes, paper hats and anything people could lay their hands on cascaded onto the stage until Conrad stood, holding his hands out in appeasement. “Folks! Please, let’s show our little prima donna how it’s done. There are a lot of Italians in this town, so I’m sure you all know the words to, ‘La Donna è Mobile.’”
There was a loud cheer as he sat down and began a rousing, joyful performance. Kid looked over at Sabrina; a smile was playing over her lips. “Bet you’re glad you stayed now, eh?”
“I sure am. I’ve listened to Rigoletto all my life. He did start in too high a key so that she’d start screeching. Now I know what he meant when he said there was more than one way to cut her down to size. There’s a lot more to Mr. Painting than meets the eye, isn’t there? I think I might stay for the rest of the evening.”
“MR. SMITH!” Mrs. Plant was waiting for them. “Where is he? Where is that... that creature!?”
She glared at Kid. “Jones. What have you done to my counterpane?”
He shook his head in mystification. “Nothin’, honest.”
“Don’t lie to me. I found it under the bed. I always regret it when I don’t follow my instincts. I knew you weren’t to be trusted.”
“Ma’am, I swear...”
“I’m sure you do. Like a trooper! You’re going to pay for it.”
Heyes bit into his lip. “Under the bed?”
“Yes, hidden there. You foul, disgusting...”
“Ma’am, we’re sorry. Of course we’ll pay to get it cleaned.”
“Cleaned! You’ll pay to replace it. I burned it. I want forty dollars.”
Heyes frowned. “Ma’am, you’re talking about the quilt? I thought you said you made the counterpane. We are talking about the quilt, aren’t we?”
“Of course we are. My counterpane. I want forty dollars for the material and labour, and don’t you even think of trying to cheat a poor old widow woman, or I’ll have the law on you.”
“Joshua, we only made fifty dollars for our job here,” hissed Kid.
“And then there’s your bill...”
“Well, Genius? How much have we got left?”
Heyes darted a look at Kid. “Three dollars and sixty cents.”
“That’s less than we had when we arrived here.” Kid shook his head and looked around at the cold, sank streets. “I dunno, we finally get paid for a job and you had to damage the counterpane. You were even warned. What are we supposed to do now? It’s pourin’.”
“Do you think any of Conrad’s folks would help?”
A pair of blue eyes slid sideways. “We could ask; as long as you promise to stay off the grappa.”