Intending absolutely no disrespect to the lovely Miss Jessica Bowman, I never really got over the loss of the enchanting Miss Erika Flores as Colleen. When I wrote this story, although Colleen is nearly an adult in it, I envisioned Miss Flores in the role, which is why I refer to blue eyes and blonde hair.
Colleen could hardly believe how her new beau from college had turned on her. How could she have been so wrong about him? He had seemed so sweet and charming. And yet now here she was, struggling with him, around the corner of a deserted building in town. He’d tried to kiss her against her will, and she’d managed to avoid it, so now he was attempting to drag her along the side of the building to the back of it. Judging from where his rough hands were indiscriminately groping, something a lot worse than kissing was in store for her if he succeeded.
So far, no one had heard her startled, frightened shrieking, but then suddenly she heard a sound not of their making. Colleen looked back toward the street, and saw that their shocked audience was…Hank.
He was clearly conflicted. Part of him was obviously and not surprisingly amused to see one of the town’s prim, prissy virgins in this kind of trouble. But another part of him seemed to realize and care that the girl really was still quite young…and genuinely terrified. His indecision showed in his face. He hesitated.
Desperately, Colleen tried to lunge toward him. Her attacker took that opportunity to seize her from behind around the waist.
“Hank, please!! Save me! Don’t let him! No!!!”
He made his decision, and moved in on them. “Let her go, creep. If you’re that desperate, come with me, and I’ll get you a girl right now, in the saloon.”
“I want this one! I love her!”
“That’s no way to show it. I said let go of her!”
The offender, young himself, was no match for Hank. He growled, released her, and fled.
Hank expected Colleen to flee, too, but instead, she ran straight to him and buried her head in his chest like a frightened child, sobbing in terror, and repeating “Thank you! Thank you!” again and again like a litany.
Uneasily, Hank put his arms around her, patting her awkwardly. He wasn’t used to holding a girl in his arms without letting his hands wander. He had to actually concentrate on where were innocuous places to touch. He settled for back and shoulders. Hank glanced around uncomfortably, hoping that no one who knew him would witness this fatherly display. It was out of character, and he was out of his element.
To his dismay, the person most likely to tune in to the sobs of this specific female, one with the properly attuned maternal instinct, did so. Michaela came running and, seeing her hysterically sobbing daughter being held by the town’s prostitute-keeper, immediately misunderstood.
“What is going on here?!”
“Michaela,….” Hank began.
“Oh, Ma!” Colleen turned her tear-streaked face to her. “Hank saved me!”
“What??” Michaela’s righteous indignation turned to blank confusion. “I…thought you were out with…your new gentleman caller.” His name evidently escaped her in her bewilderment.
“I was! And he tried to attack me!”
“Oh my lord!” She paled and looked to Hank.
He shrugged it off in discomfort. “He just got heavy-handed with her, that’s all. I ran him off without any trouble.”
Colleen wouldn’t let Hank belittle his role. “He tried to drag me off, Ma! He would’ve…! Hank saved me from…!” She couldn’t bring herself to finish either sentence, gave up, and went back to crying on Hank.
Michaela went closer. “Did he hurt you?? Did he touch…I mean…?!” She blushed as her eyes met Hank’s.
For once, he was no more comfortable than she was. He eased the sobbing child from his arms into Michaela’s. She accepted gladly, and hugged her daughter fiercely.
“No, Ma, he didn’t hurt me.”
Sully arrived just in time to hear that sentence. Naturally, he assumed that the “he” referred to Hank. With murderous fury, he pushed Michaela and Colleen behind him, and faced Hank.
“What have you done?!”
“No, Sully!” Michaela hastened. “Hank saved Colleen from her new escort! The boy tried to attack her!”
Sully deflated, aghast and abashed. “You…did? You…saved…our daughter? Hank, I….”
“Forget it.” Hank waved it away in acute embarrassment. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. It caused him to hover between smirking amusement and extreme humiliation.
Sully saw it in his eyes, related to it as one man to another, and smiled wanly in turn. At the risk of making Hank feel worse, but feeling obligated to say it, Sully said, “I pegged you wrong, Hank. You’re all right. And I’m grateful.”
Hank smiled ruefully. “Just do me one favor, then.”
“Don’t let it get around; I have a reputation to protect.”
Halloween was only a few weeks later, and Colleen was especially thrilled with her costume for the town dance. She was dressed like a fairytale princess in a long, lacy, pink-and-blue gown, which magnificently mirrored her blue eyes and pink cheeks, and with a “diamond” tiara on her head, from which hung a thin, gauzy veil, which enhanced, rather than hid, her golden hair. She felt prettier, more feminine, and more delicate than ever before in her life. Seeing herself as delicate automatically reminded her of Hank’s having saved her. That rough-and-tumble, woman-abusing, feared-by-many, distrusted-by-most, irreverent roughneck had come to her rescue like her own personal Sir Galahad! The stark contrast between the unshaven ruffian and her frilly fragile self was titillating. Was it really all that different from the contrast between the rough-around-the-edges woodsman Sully and classy, sophisticated Michaela? Colleen felt a thrill-shiver at the comparison. Could she have a destiny as fairytale as her mother’s, especially when she was dressed the part? How romantic!
Despite her excitement, Colleen did her best to suppress her glow in front of Michaela and Sully, because right after her attack-and-rescue, she’d talked so much about Hank that they’d become vaguely suspicious that her reaction to the incident might have been more than just the need to talk out a trauma. Since then, she’d studiously avoided even saying the name “Hank” in their presence.
Upon arriving at the town dance, though, it took her no time at all to quickly scan the crowd and ascertain that he was there. Colleen let her eyes keep traveling, however, not letting them linger on him, and she certainly did not dare to approach him. She didn’t want to tip her hand by committing any unsubtlety in front of the town, and she was suddenly bashful in his presence anyway.
But as the evening wore on, and almost everyone else was dancing, Colleen began to feel restless and a bit bolder. Predictably, Michaela was dancing with Sully, Matthew with Emma, Loren with Rebecca, Dorothy with Jake, and even Brian had found someone with whom to dance. And here stood lonely waif Colleen in her royal splendor. She risked a glance in Hank’s direction. He was standing on the sidelines between two of his whores, but he wasn’t dancing with anyone, and hadn’t been. He probably saw himself, even tonight, merely as a businessman advertising his wares. He was talking, laughing, and enjoying himself, but nothing more.
As Colleen realized what she wanted to do more than anything else, and that she would never forgive herself if she didn’t, her nervousness blossomed into near-pain, her heart pounded, and she felt almost physically sick. She berated herself for her overpowering need, but knew with a sinking heart that she owed it to her future to pursue her dream, rather than wonder for the rest of her life what the outcome would have been. Acutely, uncomfortably aware of the worldly, cynical eyes of the two prostitutes upon her, and their obvious, smirking realization of her virginal status, she walked shyly up to Hank, and asked him if he would dance with her.
Hank clearly didn’t know whether to be amused, flattered, or perplexed. For one thing, Michaela and Sully weren’t far away, and they would likely frown on the idea, both because of his position in the town, and because he was too old for her. For another thing, he realized, as perhaps Colleen did not, what her dancing with him would do to her reputation: for any proper lady to show an interest in Hank was to invite scandal. And this was a vulnerable little girl. On the other hand, Hank had occasionally broken in new whores younger. Not that he had any illusions that Michaela’s daughter would ever go that route. Still, she was waiting with shining, hopeful eyes, and he had a decision to make. With a quick glance at each of the two whores, he moved toward Colleen and took her into his arms.
It didn’t take Michaela long to notice. She frowned and nudged Sully. She wished that she had become aware sooner; she would’ve liked to have known whose idea that was. Although she supposed that the situation had a certain sense to it: the man had, after all, rescued her daughter, and if he’d meant her any harm, he’d had more than ample opportunity that very day, with Colleen running into his embrace and crying in his arms. Besides, this was a safe public place here amid the whole town; what could happen? With a sigh, Michaela just hoped that her daughter’s reputation wouldn’t be tarnished too badly by the spectacle.
Sully read Michaela’s mental turmoil through her expression and nodded. “I don’t see how we can begrudge him; after all, he did save her.”
Hank, for his part, did his best to ignore the wry grins of the whores, the evident slight uneasiness of Michaela, and the startled stares of Dorothy and Jake, and concentrated on the girl in his arms. Colleen had nothing to say, but her clearly spellbound admiration of him, her starry-eyed adoration, and her radiant smile told him all that he needed to know. He’d seen the look before, more than once. Colleen had a crush on him. A dazzling, fireworks, church-bells, worshipful, jackpot of a crush. He tried not to sigh, and smiled back at her, unable to keep his eyes from twinkling in fondness and affection. Her eyes sparkled back in kind, and they were solidly miscommunicating.
As Matthew and Emma sailed past, the eye-popped shock in Matthew’s face at the sight of his little sister in the town prostitute-keeper’s embrace was comical in the extreme, and Hank had to fight not to laugh out loud. Ex-prostitute Emma’s face was almost as amusing, as she watched her former unscrupulous boss escorting her beau’s innocent, naïve sister. Colleen, for her part, glared daggers into her sheriff-brother for his evident disapproval. Then her own face went stricken that Hank would see such an unladylike display. She quickly straightened her expression and turned a sweet, angelic smile up to Hank. Seeing that, Matthew seemed about to make some protest, but Emma shushed him, trying not to grin. He subsided, but his face darkened with suspicion as he looked between Emma and Hank, obviously suspecting some cahoots due to their former relationship. Emma read that, and glared indignantly at Matthew. All of this, within the space of seconds.
Sully noticed the complex interactions, and his eyes met Hank’s. He understood everything all too well, and once again man-to-man commiseration passed between them.
When the waltz ended, Colleen curtsied, so Hank bowed. She couldn’t take her eyes off of him, but by this time, neither could half of the town. Hank was uncomfortable at that, but Colleen was oblivious to it, and resisted letting go of his hand when he tried to disengage it from hers. Realizing that Matthew and Sully, and perhaps other townsmen as well, would be upon him if he didn’t soon extricate himself, Hank appeased her with a chaste kiss on the cheek and a whispered, “I’ll ask you to dance again later.” Colleen relented with a sigh and a nod, and went to sit on a bench.
Rapidly crossing the dance floor, Hank deftly sidestepped a tense-jawed Matthew and went straight to Sully. Colleen didn’t notice; she sat in dreamy-eyed bedazzlement on the other side of the floor. Michaela was vaguely annoyed at being left out of the discussion, but she ruefully realized that Sully could handle the situation, and quietly allowed Hank to lead him away from her. After all, she was grateful that Hank had voluntarily come to either one of them at all.
The two men walked away from the party and into the woods for absolute privacy.
Without preliminary, Hank said, “I’m sure that you know what’s goin’ on here as well as I do.”
“She has a crush on you,” Sully responded.
“Oh yeah!” Hank’s tone expressed clearly the size of the crush that he thought that she had.
Unbothered, Sully remarked, “She had a crush on me years ago.”
Hank’s eyes widened with interest. “What’d you do?”
“Waited it out for as long as it took. What else could I do? Besides, she was a very little girl then.”
“That’s just the trouble. Now, she sort of is a little girl, and yet she isn’t.”
“And while I’m ‘waiting it out,’ the whole town is gonna be watchin’ every move.”
Sully grinned lopsidedly. “Didn’t think that that would bother you, Hank.”
“Normally, no. But some of my customers are gonna be sure to disapprove, and I’m gonna lose business.”
“That sounds kinda cold, Hank. How do you feel about Colleen?”
Hank smirked at Sully. “Don’t you mean: what are my intentions toward your daughter?”
“Something like that.”
Hank shrugged. “She’s a sweet little girl. But she doesn’t belong in my world, Sully.”
“Not so little. She’s in college. And when this whole thing started, you were savin’ her from someone who didn’t think that she was so little. But I agree with the second part,” he hastened to add.
“So what am I gonna do? Talk to her? And it would have to be alone. Out here maybe.” He smirked again. “Do I have your permission to do that?”
“Yeah.” Sully was unruffled. “But I doubt if it’ll do any good.”
“Still, I don’t want to hurt her.” Realizing belatedly that that might sound overly defensive against an unmade sexual-assault accusation, he quickly added, “Hurt her feelings, I mean.”
“I knew what you meant. But I still don’t think it’ll change anything.” Sully grew pensive. “We need an angle. More than just tryin’ to talk her out of it.”
Suddenly, Hank saw both inspiration and foreboding in his eyes, and said, “You’ve got an idea. A big one.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know if it’s such a good idea.” Sully shook his head reluctantly, even sorrowfully.
“Come on, let’s hear it.”
Sully eyed Hank with dread, and even something nearing fear in his eyes.
Hank whistled. “Whatever it is, it must be somethin’!”
The other sighed heavily. “Won’t hurt to talk about it, I guess.”
“Well, this whole thing started because you saved her from a guy who got fresh with her. Now she runs from him and has a crush on you. So the way to get her to run from you….”
“Is for me to get fresh with her, and scare her off the same way!” Hank grinned wolfishly. He couldn’t help but get a kick out of the thought, given his nature. He laughed as he said, “Michaela’s not gonna like this!”
“Have you got a better idea?” Sully was clearly unhappy. His little girl….
“Just how…fresh…do you want me to get?” Hank was still grinning.
The uneasy father regarded him sharply. “Not very!” Sully retorted automatically, but then he sagged in realization. “Or, …well, it’ll have to be convincin’, won’t it? But, Hank…!”
The saloon owner held up a hand. “I know; don’t worry. I won’t violate her. She’ll still be a virgin; I won’t damage anything. But Sully, I don’t think somethin’ like a kiss will scare her off, either.”
“I know.” He was miserable. “You’ll have to…touch her.”
“I’ll be gentle.”
Sully nodded sadly.
“So when are we gonna do this? Tonight?”
He sighed again, louder. “Yeah. Might as well get it over with as soon as possible.”
“How? Shall I just…invite her out here for a walk?”
“Yeah. Think you can get her attention without anyone noticin’?”
“Leave that to me. But, …how are we gonna…get it stopped?”
Sully winced. “I’ll…see you two go off together, and follow, …and rescue her.” He groaned at the irony.
Hank laughed out loud. “She’ll get a crush on you again!”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“What’re you gonna tell Michaela?”
Hank appeared skeptical. “How’re you gonna keep her out of it?”
“She’ll trust me to handle it.”
The other still looked dubious, but said only, “Shall we?”
“What?!! Sully, she…!!”
“Sshhh! Folks’re lookin’! Listen, it’ll be all right. He’s not gonna do anything really….”
“How can you trust him?! In a situation like this!! He’s the town pimp!”
“That’s just it: he’s an expert; he’s confident. Anyone else might be awkward, inept. If anyone knows what he’s doin’ in that area, it’s Hank.”
“That is precisely why I…!”
“Sshhh! I gotta go. I have to be there to ‘rescue’ her. Stay here.”
Colleen was sure that she’d heard it: an unmistakable “Psst!” from the bushes behind her bench. She turned, and her heart almost stopped. “Hank?!” She stared at his face in disbelief.
He gave her his most charming grin. “Want to go for a walk?”
Her face lit up as if she were looking at a miracle. In her heart, she was.
Hank put a finger to his lips. “Don’t let on; we’ve had too many folks watchin’ us already.”
Colleen nodded quickly and rose. Her heart skittered. The thought flashed through her mind that it was unwise not to let someone know where she was going, and it even crossed her mind fleetingly to wonder if there were anything dangerous in Hank’s desire to be so diabolically secretive, but she dismissed both thoughts as nuisances intruding on her happiness. Hank wanted to be alone with her! While she was dressed as such a princess! How delightfully romantic!
She followed him into the bushes, and at her first opportunity, slipped her small hand into his. Still too close to the party, they rushed without speaking into the woods.
As soon as Hank saw a convenient log to sit on, he pulled her down onto it with him, and took her in his arms.
“I saw how you were lookin’ at me on the dance floor.” Hank leaned close, and his eyes came on to her.
Her young eyes drank in the sight of him, and she felt as if her heart would burst with its joy. “Oh, Hank! I think I love you!”
“Prove it.” He leered at her, and without warning pushed her to lie back on the log.
“What?” She paled slightly, but visibly struggled not to show any distrust. After all, this was the man who had saved her. Further, she didn’t want to spoil her fairytale romance.
“Let’s see how deep your love is,” Hank said provocatively, grinning a decidedly unsavory grin.
“What?” she said even more faintly. Fear flickered in her eyes.
“Why are you surprised? Colleen, this is who I am. You know what I am.”
Very suddenly, she felt his hand already underneath her skirt. She hadn’t even seen or felt him lift the hem. His fingers scurried giddily up her legs, as if a small animal had gotten loose there. Colleen gasped in terror. “But…you…saved…me…from…!”
“Well, maybe that’s because I wanted you for myself,” Hank countered smoothly. “When I held you after I chased him away, and I could feel your lovely young curves against my chest….” Hank’s fingers reached their destination, and Colleen shrieked. Terror-trauma was in her eyes.
“Stop it! Please! Don’t hurt me!! What are you gonna do?!”
Right on cue, Sully burst from beneath the nearest bushes, and convincingly roared, “I knew it! I knew better than to trust you with her! Get your hands off of her!!”
“Sully!!!” Colleen rolled from the log into the dirt, and away from Hank’s groping hands. Sully gathered her up protectively, glaring murderously at Hank, and enfolded his precious adopted daughter.
“Get out of here!!” he ordered the saloon keeper venomously.
Hank obeyed, but more sadly than he’d anticipated. At the edge of the clearing, just before disappearing into the night, he glanced back at the two, and endured an unexpected pang. For just a fleeting moment, he pondered what might have been.
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