Her stomach had lurched at the sight of him emerging like the ghost of Christmas past from the saloon. The sheepskin jacket was weathered and the hatband was more ornate than she remembered, but it was definitely him. Her heart started to pound but the beat seemed to palpitate alarmingly high in her breast; in fact, it almost seemed to block out her ability to swallow.
The ice-blue eyes had locked onto hers, telling her instantly that he had recognised her too. Her fingers grasped the wooden frame of the mercantile for support as a voice seemed to come from the deep recesses of the shop behind her. “Lainie? Are you alright.”
Aelene willed herself to take deep breaths and steeled her composure. She was a wife and a mother; and appearances were all in this world. Nobody could ever know she had a past and certainly not the truth about the murky path she had left behind. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Concerned grey eyes examined her. Shall I fetch some smelling salts?”
“No, Mrs. Creswell,” Aelene forced a smile. “I just had a moment there. That’ll teach me not to skip breakfast, won’t it?” And there it was; the ability to lie so easily had flooded back. She hadn’t done that for years, but then she hadn’t needed to. Life as a simple housewife enabled her to leave all that duplicity behind. That place has been a foreign country to her, but one glimpse of him had forced her back there and she still effortlessly knew her way around every nook and cranny of the world of mendacity.
“Are you sure?”
Aelene darted a look at the man striding towards her from across the road. “Perfectly, I must get on.”
She could feel the deep-blue eyes burning into her back but she quickened her pace and scurried off in the opposite direction. The sound of firm heels on the wooden sidewalk behind her jangled her nerves but she kept her head down. Maybe he’d get the message if she kept moving?
“Lainie?” The sound seemed to resonate right through her. She knew that voice so well in every shade, mood and colour but it now seemed unreal in the here and now; the dissonance ringing loudly between her former life and the mundane ordinariness of the town.
“Lainie,” he repeated.
She stopped, but did not turn to greet him.
“Aelene,” he murmured softly. “I know it’s you, Lala.”
The pet name caught in a caustic lump at the back of her throat as she glanced over to see Hannibal Heyes standing on the other side of the road. It was so like them – give the other space but make sure they were around in case help was needed. She closed her eyes slowly with a sigh; she knew the strategy and she understood that Heyes was worried about how this meeting would pan out. Well, join the club - nobody was more concerned than Mrs. Aelene Coalville.
“How are you doin? You look real well.”
She finally found the strength to face him and to look into those amazing eyes once again; and there he stood, looking as though time had stood still, with the hands on his hips pushing back the sheepskin jacket.
“Jed?” she whispered. “I never thought I’d see you again.”
Kid Curry nodded. “Me neither. How’ve you been, darlin’?”
“Fine. I’m married now.”
He smiled broadly but she was unable to read any emotion in his eyes. “You are? That’s just great. Is he good to you?”
“He’s a lovely man.” She gulped heavily. “He’s a bank manager.”
A twinkle returned to the smile at the irony. “He is? Well ain’t that a turn up for the books. How’d you meet him?”
“At a dance. It was all very ordinary. My life has been much simpler since I last saw you.”
“I wish I could say the same.” The smile dropped from his eyes. “I thought of you often, darlin’.”
“I... I need to go. Robert will be waiting.”
A blond eyebrow arched. “Is that your husband?”
“My son.” An alarming thought crossed her mind. “You’re not here to rob the bank are you? You can’t... it’d hurt Ralph.”
“No, Lainie,” he shook his head. “We don’t do that anymore. We’re tryin’ to go straight and live quietly.”
She darted a look over at the man she knew to be the outlaw leader. “I don’t believe you. It’s a trick. Hannibal Heyes going straight? I’m not an idiot.”
“I swear on my life. We may be many things but we ain’t stupid. There are telephones now and folks can call in a robbery from one town to the other. I tell you; fifty years from now there’ll be one in every town the rate they’re bein’ taken up.” Jed folded his arms. “Catchin’ thieves is becomin’ a science and we reckon it’s time to get out while the goin’ is good. They’ll forget about us soon enough, there are always new fellas comin’ up behind.”
“Not like you.” The words slipped out before she could help herself.
His eyes softened. “Or you.”
“Why are you here?”
“Just passin’ though. We survive by doin’ odd jobs. It ain’t safe to stay anywhere for long.” They both looked over at the ex-outlaw leader who cautiously scanned the street. “And I guess it’s best we pass through even quicker now we’re been recognised.”
She frowned. “Jed, I’d never turn you in. What do you think I am?”
“I know that, Lainie.” The Kid shrugged. “But you know how Heyes is. He thinks my judgement ain’t the best when it comes to women.”
Aelene blinked back the tears pricking at her eyes. “Yes, so I remember.”
“It wasn’t him,” he cut in, defensively. “I made the decision to go. It was better for you.”
“Was it?” the bitterness dripped from every syllable. “You would say that, wouldn’t you? But I suppose you’d had what you wanted.”
“That ain’t true, darlin’. Come and talk to me properly. There’s a restaurant over there.”
“I’m a married woman. I can’t be seen to be consorting with strange men.”
“I’m not strange,” his lips curled into a grin, “folks are just jealous they ain’t got the courage to be more like me. It ain’t consortin’ to be seen in a public place. Talk to me.” Aelene glanced around at the passing shoppers; and more particularly at the matron who did nothing to conceal her interest in the bank manager’s wife being accosted by a handsome stranger in the street. “Folks have seen us talkin, Lainie. It’s always best to take control of a situation; or have you forgotten that?”
“Apparently I forgot that the moment I met you,” she sighed.
He hooked an arm through hers and led her towards the door. “Well I haven’t. Come on. An hour from now I’ll be gone and you’ll never see me again. Why waste your life wondering about what I might have said? I need you to understand why I left.”
He swept her inside and got them quickly installed at a table where a smiling waitress took their order before bustling through the whispering customers towards the kitchen. Aelene’s stomach turned at the sight of Margaret McGlasson manifesting at their table like a spectre at the feast.
“Lainie?” The preacher’s wife turned curious grey eyes on the Kid before smiling archly at Aelene. “I just wanted to remind you that you were going to help with the decorations for the Christmas Pageant.”
“I hadn’t forgotten, Mrs. McGlasson.”
The matron lingered, smiling awkwardly at both people in turn, unwilling to let this choice morsel of gossip slip through her fingers.
Bright blue eyes twinkled mischievously. “Lainie, aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?”
“Yes,” Mrs. McGlasson beamed. “Tea with a stranger? Do tell.”
“Stranger?” The Kid serenely ignored Aelene’s glower. “I’m no stranger. I’ve known Lainie for years. We went to school together.”
Thin eyebrows arched in interest. “Really?”
“Well, I knew her brother better. He was my best friend, you know,” the Kid smiled benignly. “She’s like a kid sister, bein’ so much younger than me.”
“Really?” The preacher’s wife frowned at Aelene. “I didn’t know you had a brother. In fact, you had no family at your wedding at all.”
“Well, there was the tragedy,” he continued, blithely. “She’s very brave, but she doesn’t like to talk about it. She came here for a fresh start. I don’t like to bring up bad memories but I couldn’t pass through town without seeing lookin’ up little Lala. I’m between trains. I’ve only got an hour or so before I have to leave.”
“Tragedy?” The desperate need for further information positively consumed Mrs. McGlasson before their eyes. “I’m sure I could help. Someone to talk to, perhaps?”
Aelene stared at the Kid who was clearly enjoying the story. “I’m fine. Do you think we could have some privacy?”
“Of course,” the woman leaned over and patted Aelene’s hand. “We must have tea very soon.”
“What did you do that for?” Aelene hissed as the interloper walked away.
The Kid settled back in his chair. “She wanted a secret to gossip about, so I gave her one. It just wasn’t the real one.”
“A brother? I’ve never had a brother.”
“That’s alright,” he smiled at the waitress who laid out the coffee cups and placed a pot of coffee between them. “You still haven’t, but she’s so busy tryin’ to find out about that she doesn’t give a tinker’s cuss about you havin’ tea with a strange man.” He met Aelene’s cold glare. “You’re welcome.”
“Jed, why are you really here?”
“I’m passing through, just like I said. It’s a coincidence, Lainie. I wouldn’t disrupt your life. That wouldn’t be fair.”
Something stirred deep in her heart at the knowledge he’d never intentionally seek her out but she dropped her eyes and focussed on the coffee pot. “White or black?”
“Hey, there’s fresh cream; I’ll have white. That doesn’t make me a bad man, Lainie.”
“Of course not; lots of people take cream.”
His eyes softened. “I walked away and I know I hurt you. It was for the best,” he dropped his voice to a hush. “I’m still wanted. I drift from town to town living from one wage to the other. That’s no life for a woman.”
Aelene fixed him with a weary look. “Don’t tell me what to think. Nothing will annoy me quicker.”
She stiffened. “For what? Taking my virginity, walking away, not caring enough to do more than bump into me in the street by accident? Just what are you sorry for, Mr. Curry?”
He paused. “For all of it. For any hurt I caused you.” Aelene’s knuckles tightened on the handle of the pot, but she remained silent. “But I didn’t take anythin’, darlin’. I’d never do that; we shared that moment, but I didn’t take it. It was a place only we know and I’ll remember it to my dyin’ day.”
“I thought it was special. It was a forever thing for me.”
He dropped his hand and pursed his lips. “Me too, but life thought different.”
“Your partner thought different, you mean.”
“No,” the Kid shook his head. “He’d have done what it took if it made me happy but it’s not his fault he was right. I’d have only brought misery to your door; and mine. A husband is no use to a woman if he’s spendin’ twenty years in jail.”
“And that’d be more likely to happen if you were with me?” Aelene demanded.
“You’d have likely spent time in jail yourself, Lainie. You weren’t exactly Little Nell. You were a professional flim flammer.”
“I did that so I wouldn’t have to end up selling myself,” Aelene murmured, bitterly. “I had a brain which was more use than my body. I had no choice, but once I did,” she cast a hand around, “I lived a clean life.”
“Good choice, Lainie. It took me far too long to realise that I had to change my ways. What did it for you?”
“William changed after I took up with you. I couldn’t stay with him as a partner. He started pushing me towards the Badger Game.”
The Kid frowned. “He wanted you to sleep with other men so he could blackmail them? But he’d always been so protective of you.”
Aelene nodded. “He’d been like a father towards me, but once he knew I’d been with you,” she shrugged. “It seems it was all or nothing to him. I was either pure, or a complete, well – you get the picture.”
“I’m real sorry, Lainie,” the Kid stretched out a hand and let his fingertips brush hers. “I had no idea.”
Aelene glanced over at Mrs. McGlasson who nodded in discrete approval of a gesture support and comfort. "Anyway, I ran off and got work at a general store here. I changed my life. I had to. My old life broke my heart.”
Jed Curry drew back his hand and toyed uneasily with his coffee cup. “You were special to me, Lainie. Some people make me more like myself and you were one of them. You made me realise who I could have been, but you also made me see that I wasn’t the man you deserved.”
“Yes,” Aelene glanced distractedly out of the window. “I came to realise that too, but it didn’t hurt any less. I loved you.”
She took a sip of her coffee. “So am I. The first thing that hit me when I saw you was that I was in danger of losing my marriage, my family and my life. I wondered why you were here. Now that I’ve had time to think about things I feel sorry for you. I’m happy, and you are still running. I hope you find peace, Jed Curry. I truly do.” The Kid’s chair scrapped back as he leaped to his feet as Aelene stood. “I must go. Little Robert will be back from school soon and he’ll be hungry.”
“I loved you too, Lainie.”
A weak smile twitched at her lips. “Yes, we loved. It’s all in the past and meeting you helped me to realise that. It was wonderful, but you were right. It would have been a disaster for both of us.” She leaned into the gentle kiss he placed on her cheek. “Goodbye, Jed. I wish you nothing but the best. For all I loved you, the hurt it would cause my husband to find out about you was paramount in my mind. You brought glad tidings for Christmas. You not only made me realise where my heart lies now; but you focused my mind on how much I value it. Keep running until you find safety. It’s only over when you give up.”
She walked out of the restaurant and nodded over to the man in the black hat loitering nearby before she picked up her skirts and strode across the road. There was so much to do. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and there was so much food to prepare. Family would be arriving soon and she would leave a lamp in the window to light their way. This was going to be a special Christmas because nobody knew better than her that moments can be short, but their echoes can be endless.