The following morning, Melinda took a stroll along the countryside to enjoy the fresh air. She knew she would not have much spare time after school started because of the responsibilities as a teacher. It did not take long until she found a lush and beautiful field with a cool stream nearby. So, lifting her skirts, she carefully climbed the fence so she could investigate this beautiful scenery.
Melinda felt a freedom she had never felt before. As the breeze gently brushed past her cheeks, she suddenly felt an exuberant need to run. Lifting up her skirts, she ran through the field toward the stream, where she tossed aside her shoes and socks. Melinda gathered her skirts with her left hand and held them up as she walked down the middle of the stream, her right hand poised to keep her balance. The fresh, cool water trickled against her ankles and it felt so refreshing.
Melinda stopped for a moment and watched a couple of birds flying and swooping in the air, chasing one another. Is this a form of courtship or are they having a lover's spat, she wondered. The thought made her laugh out loud and her long eyelashes seemed to flirt with the breeze as she waded through the stream.
Melinda noticed the ditch curved to the right. Looking up, she was startled to see someone watching her in the middle of her reverie. She stopped abruptly where she was and her lips parted with surprise. She brushed a loose curl from her eyes with the back of her hand and smiled.
In a most subdued manner, she said, "Hello."
The man stared at her with piercing brown eyes, as if he were searching for an explanation. He was an imposing figure, six-foot-two inches tall and every inch of him was muscle. He had broad shoulders, dark brown hair, and was ruggedly handsome. His arms were tanned from the sun and his shirt could not hide the bulging muscles rippling across his shoulders and chest.
He looked about thirty years of age and the sight of him took her breath away. His thumbs were tucked behind his belt as he stood watching her and he had a slight smile on his face, as if he were amused.
Here she was, a grown woman, wading in a stream of water. She was so embarrassed. Suddenly she felt warmth creep into her face. Melinda worried that she might have intruded somehow. Feeling a bit intimidated by his stature and muscular build, she tried to get her courage up. She took a deep breath and then plunged in with her first question.
"Have I trespassed onto private property, sir? If so, I didn't mean to." She waved a hand in the direction she came from and explained, "I climbed the fence back there. I guess I should have known better."
When the man realized he was staring, he looked embarrassed about it and quickly answered in a soft, deep voice. "No, no. It's all right. My cows graze in this pasture and I was going to round them up for milking. I'm sorry if I startled you."
Melinda noticed that his tone was apologetic and could not think of a thing to say.
"Don't worry. Everything's fine. Please stay as long as you like."
For some reason, his face was flushed and he seemed to be flustered as he spoke. Then, without another word, he abruptly turned and briskly strode away.
Feeling confused about why he had acted so flustered, Melinda curiously watched him stride down the field. She could not help but wonder who he was. His voice was soft and kind, his features and mannerisms were rugged, and his eyes were gentle. What a combination! But why did he seem so flustered?
Looking down at her wet feet and legs, she gasped and quickly dropped her skirt. No wonder he had acted so embarrassed. A respectable young woman would never reveal her bare feet, let alone her legs. She laughed softly to herself. How could she have forgotten her upbringing? Was it being out in the open air, feeling free and unfettered from the stifling life of the city? If so, she liked this new feeling of freedom and was happy to be a part of this wild country.
Noticing the sun setting, Melinda realized that she had stayed out a little too long. Quickly, she stepped out of the stream and ran toward her shoes. She sat upon the ground to put them on and once again thought about the quiet stranger she had met. Who was he? Was he an example of what all men out West were like? Were all men this tall and rugged looking? Remembering his frame, she grinned. Were all men in the West that well built? If so, she was going to love it here. Back east, she had never seen such a man before. This was so different from the city!
Remembering his dark eyes and quiet mannerisms, she smiled and thought she might like to get to know this man a little better.
At the dinner table, she asked her aunt and uncle whose property she had just intruded upon. Maybe she could discover something about this rugged-looking stranger without sounding too interested in him.
Aunt Martha placed her fork on the side of her plate and began. "His name is Gilbert Roberts. He owns a ranch down yonder and has acres of land. He's a dairyman and a rancher. He has a hired man that milks the cows, but he works alongside him. He's a real good person to his hired help, I understand. If anyone gets in a pickle, he's right there ready to help out."
Martha shook her head solemnly and said softly, "He's a widower, too, but he doesn't seem to socialize much. Gilbert has a daughter about eight years of age. His wife died in childbirth. They had only been married for about a year when she died. It was real sad. He's been alone ever since and had to raise his girl without any help. He's real independent when it comes to being a father. He never asks for help and likes it that way."
She passed the potatoes to Melinda and smiled. "You'll probably have his daughter in your class. Some folks say that because he has no wife, his girl has gone wild. Personally I think she's a sweet young thing. Her name's Jenny and I hear that she gets in a few fights at school, a real feisty young girl. The last teacher said that she was a real troublemaker."
Melinda listened carefully. She felt sorry for Gilbert, but she did not want to become interested in a person with a problem child, especially one who had been married before. She had had enough of the married men she met at the university. They were all so opinionated and stubborn, not believing in education for women and having little respect for her...and she was fed up with such narrow-mindedness.
Men who had been married before seemed to be set in their ways and resented change. They would often remind her that it was about time she settled down and learned to cook instead of going to college or teaching, and this infuriated her. Melinda's education was important to her, almost as important as equality between the sexes.
She knew that she was making a judgment about Gilbert, but she could not help it. Gilbert had been married before; therefore, he would most certainly be opinionated and stubborn. She would never marry a man who would attempt to "put her in her place."
So she quickly dismissed the idea of getting to know this rugged man. But somehow, she felt drawn to him and had no idea why. Maybe it was his quiet demeanor and soft-spoken voice. Maybe it was his embarrassment and boyish attitude as he became flustered and quickly turned and left. Perhaps it was his muscular build that intrigued her. She grinned inwardly. Then she shook her head. No. No matter what, she was not interested and that was that.