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By Liz Ireland
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTexas, 1882
The stage to Blissful jolted along the dusty, deeply rutted road west from San Antonio, flinging its six passengers against the windows one moment then hurling them against one another the next.
After two hours of this treatment Lacy Calhoun felt utterly exhausted. The temperature inside the coach was stifling; the opened windows let in more dust than air. Much longer inside that hot box and she feared she would simply wither. In fact, she would have loved to give up the fight altogether like the man next to her, whose corpulent body periodically flopped against her shoulder, his mouth gaping in slumber. Even while she winced at the spittle coming out the side of his tobacco-stained lips, she envied him his remarkable technique of relaxation under duress.
But of course her neighbor wasn't stuffed like a sausage into a brand new corset that pinched. His legs weren't encased into thick, sensible stockings. And naturally he was immune to the pungent smell of sweat emanating from their fellow passengers, since a large part of the odor seemed to originate with him. The pains Lacy took trying not to breathe through her nose almost equaled the efforts she expended to keep herself sitting in her rightful place every time the stage wheels hit a nasty hole. Otherwise, she would have landed in the lap of the passenger across from her. Which, taking into account the raw masculinity of the man, was somewhere a young lady who'd just spent the past fourteen years in a convent shouldn't want to be.
Bluntly speaking, he was the most attractive, virile man Lacy had ever laid eyes on. Granted, after her time at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy, she didn't have a wide sampling to draw comparisons from. But she was still fairly certain she was looking at - or rather, pointedly trying not to look at - a specimen most women would call a handsome devil.
Emphasis on devil. The man's deep brown eyes were so piercing they sent a little shiver through her every time she caught him staring at her, which he had been doing all the way from San Antonio. The rich, dark depths of those eyes made her understand, all at once, what Sister Mary Katherine had meant when she warned Lacy against earthly thoughts. Something in his countenance made her feel warm all over, from her scratchy straw bonnet right down to the cramped, pointed toes of her new boots. Maybe it had to do with the knowing grin he directed at her - even the curve of his thick mustache seemed to be turned up in a seductive smile. Whatever the cause, Lacy was sure that the dizzying, irregular beat of her heart was what happened to women when they fell under a man's spell ... and thereafter became fallen women.
The trouble was, if she looked away from the man's handsome face, it was impossible not to be mesmerized by the rest of him. He was built like Greek statuary, in epic proportions. Broad shoulders emphasized the smart cut of his dark coat, and the legs that jutted out to a point just a hair's breadth from her own knees were massive trunks. Even his hands, so large and browned, seemed imposing. She could imagine those hands touching her, as indeed they had as he'd handed her up into the coach back in San Antonio.
At the memory of his warm flesh against her left elbow, she blushed. What a silly reaction to have about such an innocent little gesture. It wasn't as if the man had actually touched her in an intimate manner....
She hazarded a glance at the man, caught his eye, and felt her heart thump dangerously - like a primitive native drumbeat in her breast.
For pity's sake, she upbraided herself, two hours away from the sisters and you're already contemplating sinning! And to think, she'd actually considered taking the veil herself. The sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy had obviously wanted her to stay - had practically begged her not to go home - and Lacy did believe she would make an excellent novice. But her duty lay elsewhere. And as Sister Mary Katherine had told her, a good heart could always find good works to do.
The driver hit another bump, and Lacy tensed every muscle in her body to keep herself rooted to the hard bench seat. One gloved hand was splayed against the edge of the opened window in an effort to hold herself in place, while the other, in a bow to ladylike behavior, rested in her lap with her embroidered reticule.
Lacy had outfitted herself to make a good impression. At Christmas when her mother had visited her at the convent, she'd told Lacy that she was tired of seeing her in drab shapeless clothing. So Lacy had been preparing for this day ever since, sewing herself a new lavender dress in the latest style - well, the latest she could gather from her limited view of the world at the convent. She'd found a magazine, two years old, featuring a picture of a dress with a fitted bodice and tight sleeves, with sweet accents of lace at the collar and the cuffs. The fitted skirt was rather immodest by her standards, so she had taken a creative liberty by making it a little fuller than the picture had indicated.
She wanted her mother to see how well she could do needlework. For fourteen years, her mother, a widow, had worked her fingers to the bone running a large boardinghouse and taking in sewing and mending to provide for Lacy's education. Now Lacy wanted to provide for her mother for a change.
"Where are you headed, miss?"
The devil's dark eyes peered straight at her. The other people in the cramped stage, another man and an elderly woman, were also eyeing her curiously. The question had even roused the fat man next to her.
She cleared her throat of the layer of dust and grit lodged there. "Blissful."
"You don't say." Another wide, dazzling smile spread across the devil's face, revealing a row of even white teeth.
"What takes you there?"
The question seemed a little impertinent to her, since they hadn't even been introduced.
"My mother lives there," she revealed cautiously. To rebuke him for his forward manner, she turned, directing the rest of her explanation exclusively to the others. "Mama sent me to be raised by the sisters at Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy in San Antonio, but she's getting older now and no doubt could use my help." She sighed, feeling pleasantly martyrlike. "So I've decided to surprise her and return at last to the bosom of my childhood home."
She immediately regretted the figure of speech. She could swear she felt the stranger's dark eyes ogling her chest.
Only the elderly lady next to the opposite window seemed duly impressed by her daughterly devotion. "Very kind of you, dear."
Encouraged, Lacy was about to engage the woman in further conversation when the devil poked his large paw toward her. "The name's Lucas Burns."
She kept her own free hand fisted around her reticule and nodded at him curtly. "How do you do."
At her cool response, he withdrew his hand and used it to tip his black hat back on his head. He chuckled. "I see. The high-tone type. Well, young lady, you might be interested to know that we're going to be neighbors."
Lacy's mouth dropped open in surprise. "You're from Blissful?"
Her mother always described Blissful as such a sweet little community - and her memories from childhood made it seem that way, too. She just had vague recollections, of course. Of the house, full of music and gaiety. Her sociable mother was never at a loss for laughter, and they were always surrounded by company. In those early years, it seemed her mother had an endless stream of friends who enjoyed playing with Lacy and bringing her treats. At the boardinghouse, Lacy had been treated like a little princess. That was another reason her mother always gave her for sending away for her education to the convent. She told Lacy she didn't want her to be spoiled.
Excerpted from Blissful Texas by Liz Ireland Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.