COME FLY WITH ME
© Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Central Secondary School
Helena, Montana Territory
September 9, 1886
Please, let him not be here.
As Luanne Palmer climbed the stairs to the second floor, she muttered “please” after “please.” She reached the top, then turned the corner and paused. The door at the far end of the hall was closed, but that didn’t mean anything. So were all the other doors. She touched her belly, only the action did little to dispel the flutters. Bad enough that she felt them when Roy Bennett looked at her. Now, heaven help her, they started at the mere dread over seeing him. Here. Building a fire in her classroom’s potbellied stove. Monday’s surprise appearance had shocked her to the point that all she’d been able to do was murmur thanks.
Why? Her sister said it was because he had fond feelings for her, and this was his attempt to show them, to garner her attention. Luanne groaned inwardly. If he had feelings for her, then she must do something to discourage them—like go to her mother and request that her brother’s new friend be politely kicked out of the house as a guest. But Mother collected stray people the way some collected stray animals. She would never rescind an offer of hospitality, especially when their guest was still recovering from his broken forearm. No help would come from Father, either. Not when Roy Bennett had done nothing to deserve banishment. He’d been the epitome of politeness. What could Luanne say? That their guest needed to go because she couldn’t control her racing heart and fluttering stomach?
No, it was up to Luanne to handle her own emotions and make it clear that she had no interest in a romantic attachment to a man who flew from one place to another to chase adventure. Considering the obvious hints she’d dropped at dinner last night, odds were Roy Bennett wouldn’t be here today.
Surely he wouldn’t.
Please let him not be.
At the sound of a squeak, she cast a nervous glance down the stairs. None of her fellow teachers appeared. Of course, it was a full twenty minutes before she expected any of them to arrive to start the day. No one ever arrived before seven a.m., except for her and the janitor.
And—this week—Roy Bennett.
Luanne drew in a breath and started forward, her boots clicking against the floorboards. Logic said he wasn’t here. He’d been out late last night ballooning with her brother and hadn’t been at breakfast.
But what if he was here?
Roy Bennett in her classroom was a problem. She should have discouraged him from building a morning fire after the first time, but she’d hated the thought of hurting the man’s feelings—after all, it hadn’t taken her a week of knowing Roy Bennett to realize he enjoyed helping others. Just like she enjoyed being nice. Not only did she like being considerate of others’ feelings, she liked living in a town where people knew she was nice . . . or at least knew her by her “Luanne Palmer is such a nice girl” reputation.
Roy Bennett wasn’t from around these parts, which was her second problem. He wasn’t from anywhere, as far as she could tell. Based off the stories he’d shared about his travels, he drifted into one town and on to the next like one of the hot air balloons he raced. Once the upcoming balloon race was over, he’d leave Helena. He’d made that clear the day her brother, Geddes, brought his new friend back from a balloon race in Butte, Montana where they’d been competitors. Roy Bennett, his left arm splinted and tied in a sling, promised to be no trouble and to leave as soon as the Helena Fall Festival was over.
Luanne nipped her bottom lip as she neared her classroom. She couldn’t smell smoke. Then again, the door was closed. If he was in there—
She stopped just before her classroom door with the familiar Tenth Grade etched in the glass, beyond where Roy could see her if he looked her way. Her hands clenched together.
She didn’t want to see him.
Yet the flutters grew frantic. The flutters made her toes inch forward. The flutters caused her to hope he was in her classroom again.
That was her third problem—and the biggest one of all. She wasn’t just attracted to his devastating smile. Or to how his dark beard couldn’t disguise the dimples that dented his cheeks. Or to the twinkle in his blue eyes whenever he looked her way. Since Roy Bennett had arrived in Helena six weeks ago, she’d woken every morning in anticipation of seeing him, of listening to stories of his travels, of talking to him about anything and everything.
Even if she could toss away her qualms over problems one and two of why she should not be attracted to Roy Bennett, she couldn’t ignore problem four.
Her teaching contract.
For the next school year, she’d agreed not to court any man, not to be alone in a room with one. She’d agreed to remain a spinster. To live according to the Board of Trustee’s morality code, regardless of how ridiculously high the standards were. Thus, no matter what feelings she had for Roy Bennett, in light of her contract, they were moot. Her heart needed to accept the fact he was leaving Helena in three weeks. In twenty-five days, to be precise.
Luanne placed one hand on her racing heart and inhaled slowly through her nose in hopes of ebbing her pulse. She exhaled as slowly through an O in her lips. No more secret indulgences. Today she would do the right—and nice—thing and recuse him from building a morning fire for her class. Before she was caught admiring him.
She stepped closer to the door, reaching for the—
“Miss Palmer?” Archibald Tate’s nasal voice held a note of censure.
Her heart began a sudden drumming against her chest. Where had he come from?
Luanne squared her shoulders. With an expression she hoped was an appropriate mix of pleasant surprise, quiet authority, and proper humility, she turned to face him. “Good morning, Professor Tate. You’re here early.”
He dipped his balding head to stare at her over his wire-rimmed glasses. “As are you.”
“It’s my usual time,” she couldn’t help clarifying.
After a little hmmph, he said, “I hope I’m not interrupting anything . . . ?” He let the sentence dangle with an inflection he considered a subtle attempt to guilt people into confessing their sins.
After nine years of working for the man, Luanne knew better than to take the bait. She’d once overheard him tell a board member that he often left sentences unfinished because how people filled in the thought told him what secrets they were trying to keep. She had no secrets.
Save for one.
From the look in Professor Tate’s eyes, he knew about Roy Bennett’s unnecessary fires and disapproved of his presence altogether. That, if it were up to him, Mr. Tate would ban the janitor from allowing any unauthorized person access to the school. Such a ban, however, would stop fathers and brothers from building fires later in the year—something the School Board would never allow because, then, either they would have to help with the fires themselves or pay someone else to do it.
Luanne resisted the urge to glance at her classroom door. From this angle, Mr. Tate couldn’t see the potbellied stove in the center of
the room. Or Roy.
She gave him her blandest smile. “Of course you aren’t interrupting.” She motioned to her door. “Would you like to come in and see? Today we are beginning our study on Mendeleev’s periodic table of elements.”
His pointy chin dipped even lower, his glasses sliding, and his eyebrows lifted higher.
Luanne did her best to maintain her smile under his intense and uncomfortable appraisal.
“No need,” he finally said in that usual tone, as uppity as the cravat he wore with his three-piece suit. “You asked for time to think about my proposal.” He eased closer. “It’s been eleven days.”
Luanne held her ground despite the need to put distance between them. “I’ve been busy attending to the end of the last school year and preparing for the new one. Of course, once school began . . . you know how much a teacher has to do. I also have my responsibilities at church and with the Ladies Aid Society.”
Her excuses didn’t appear to mollify him. “With my wife’s unexpected passing, the board deems it in the school’s best interest for me to remarry quickly.” His gaze sifted to her hands, yet (thankfully) he didn’t grab one. “Children are best raised with a mother to give them undivided attention, don’t you agree? Women with experience teaching make the best mothers.”
“Miss Babcock mentioned at the Independence Day Social how she would like to marry and have children. Perhaps you should discuss this with her.”
“Why settle for anyone except the best?”
She didn’t respond—not with a smile or a nod or anything that he could misconstrue as her welcoming his attentions. What could she say?
That her one and only marriage proposal had come eleven days ago from the man a mere week after his wife’s funeral was humiliating enough. Did he think she was desperate to marry? She didn’t feel desperate. Nor did she have any empathetic feelings for the six Tate children, who according to Mr. Tate, desperately needed a new mother to help them overcome their loss.
She’d rather be a spinster for the rest of her life.
She’d been a coward for not declining his proposal immediately. It seemed best to spare his feelings. Why couldn’t her signature on her teaching contract be answer enough to his proposal?
If she married him, she would have to cease teaching.
Professor Tate’s children didn’t need her as much as her students did. After the tenth grade, there was no more state-required schooling for them. This was her last chance to expand their minds and help the handful of troubled youths she had to see they had employment options besides prostitution and gang involvement.
Luanne motioned to her classroom. “I need to—umm, I have essays to—to read.”
Mr. Tate pressed his index finger against the nose bridge of his glasses to ease them up. “I would hate for you to find yourself in a position where both your teaching contract is voided and your reputation is slighted because of the actions of a drifter.”
Dread chilled her spine. He knew Roy Bennett was in her classroom.
Mr. Tate rested his hand on her shoulder. “Miss Palmer, I’m sure you will soon see the wisdom of a marriage between us. For the benefit of your future here at Central Secondary School. I will be around when you need me.” He paused. “Always around.” He gave her shoulder a little squeeze before walking away, his footsteps growing fainter as he continued down the long hall .
Luanne dropped her phony smile.
Since his wife’s funeral, he’d begun arriving at school even earlier. Had he been the one to open the door this morning instead of the janitor? Had he and Roy Bennett talked this morning? Did Mr. Tate know Roy Bennett had been staying at the Palmer residence for the last six weeks? What a foolish question. Of course he knew. It wasn’t a secret. She’d dutifully informed the county superintendent and the Board of Trustees.
She turned back to the door and, thankfully, felt none of the usual flutters at seeing her brother’s friend. Nine years ago, on the day she’d taken her teaching certification exam, she vowed to dedicate five years to teaching. After that, her plan was to marry and start a family of her own. It would have come to fruition, too, had it not been for Yancey. Her sister’s profession of love for Hale Adams—and declaration in no uncertain terms that Hale was hers—had brought an end to that romance . . . and to Luanne’s five-year plan . In retrospect, what she felt for Hale was convenience and friendship—and a desire to stick to her schedule. She’d gotten over her disappointed hopes too easily for it to be love. Mr. Tate was suffering under a similar case of misplaced romantic attachment.
I’m sure you will soon see the wisdom of a marriage between us. For the benefit of your future here at Central School.
What did he mean? That she would lose her job if she didn’t marry him? He couldn’t mean that. She had to have heard him wrong.
But what if she hadn’t?
Luanne blinked and sniffed to keep back tears. A widower with six children was pressuring her to marry him, she would probably lose her job if she didn’t, and she had a foolish attraction to a man who had no future here. Not to mention when she cried, it was ugly: wracking sobs, swollen eyes, and globs of snot. She needed Roy Bennett gone as soon as possible—before her tumultuous emotions got the better of her. He was leaving in three weeks. She had a contract to honor. Her commitment to her students came first.
After three fortifying, deep breaths, she yanked open the door, flinging it wide so no one could accuse her of being alone with a man. And, for good measure, she slid the door prop in front to ensure it stayed open.
Roy rose as soon as she took two steps inside the already warm room. “Miss Palmer, what a pleasure to see you this morning.”
“Mr. Bennett.” She held herself rigid, not daring to move or speak lest her control broke.
“I’ll be done here in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” He returned his attention to the fire, and she opened her eyes wider, blinking and blinking to keep from tearing up again.
He reached sideways and grabbed a few larger pieces of kindling wood. It stretched the fabric of his white shirt, revealing the bumps and ridges of his muscled arms. He could easily lift her into his arms and carry her down the stairs and not be the least bit labored. Her chest tightened. Flutters—
With a growl under her breath, she looked away.
A clap-swish, clap-swish sound drew her attention back to the unwanted man—yes, yes, he was unwanted—standing in the center of the room and tending an unnecessary fire.
He swiped his hands together a few more times, ridding them of lingering dirt and wood. “All set.”
Luanne looked heavenward and gave her head a little shake. “Thank you,” she muttered.
He drew his eyebrows closer together. “Have I offended in some way, Miss Palmer?”
“Of course not.” Luanne waited for him to say more.
They stared at each other for an uncomfortable moment.
She clenched her hands together. “Why . . . uhh . . . why do you ask?”
“You looked put out. And now you are scowling at me.”
“No, no, I was—” No matter what her parents said, honesty wasn’t always the best policy. Although she had to stop ignoring the fact that she had to tell him in no uncertain terms that his fire-building skills were unneeded.
She met his confused gaze. The poor man was only trying to be helpful. Later. She would talk to him later, when she wasn’t distraught over the conversation with Professor Tate. Yes, that was the wise thing to do. Be calm. Don’t cry. Oh, why was this happening to her? Why did Geddes, of all the racers in Butte, have to be the one closest to Roy Bennett when his balloon landed too hard, tossing him from his basket and breaking his arm? And why couldn’t Geddes have limited his Good Samaritan instincts to seeing Roy Bennett to the hospital? Why invite him to live in Helena—in the Palmer’s house—for two, full months?
Luanne pressed the back of her hand against her nose. She sniffed again.
He picked up his brown tweed coat. He tossed it over his shoulder, one hooked finger keeping it from falling to the floor, and started toward her. “Are you feeling under the weather?”
“I’m fine, thank you.” Luanne eased sideways so he could exit through the door. The bustle beneath her navy plaid skirt bent under the pressure of sliding against the chalkboard, but remaining far away from Roy Bennett took precedence over keeping her skirt clean. One sympathetic glance, one expression of concern, and she’d throw herself in his arms with such abandon she’d be fired for sure.
If he didn’t believe her insistence that she was fine, Roy Bennett was gentleman enough not to accuse her outright. He stopped on the threshold and offered her one of his sigh-evoking smiles. “I look forward to seeing you this evening at dinner.”
Luanne nodded, giving him the same placid grin she’d perfected for dealing with Professor Tate. As soon as he closed the door behind him, her breath caught. The tears she’d held at bay fell. How would this work out?
The wall clock chimed the top of the hour. Seven a.m.
Luanne straightened her shoulders and wiped her face with the back of her hands. A letter would solve this. Two actually. One to Mr. Tate explaining her refusal. One to Roy Bennett asking him to cease building a fire for her classroom. That was the simplest solution. Starting now, she would avoid him. As much as possible, at any rate. She had her involvement with church, school, and the Ladies Aid Society to keep her occupied. New plan: be polite but disinterested during family dinner, then disappear for evening charitable causes as soon as the dishes were cleared.
Yes. That’s how it would work out.