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Laney O'Connor hesitated outside the legendary Hotel Dupree, unsure how best to proceed. Suspended in her moment of indecision, she took a slow, calming breath. The gesture did little to dispel her increasing agitation. She was, after all, about to commit a brazen act.
Could she pull this off?
Did she have any other choice?
A wave of doubt crested. With a hard swallow, she shoved the unwanted emotion into submission. This was no time for uncertainty.
Yet here she stood, motionless, hardly daring to breathe.
Lifting her gaze, she studied the ornate building in front of her. Not out of curiosity, but to gather the courage she would need to enter the most exclusive establishment in Denver and finish what she'd started this morning.
The Hotel Dupree wasas all the periodicals claimedthe most elegant building in town. Although the sun had set hours ago, modern gaslights bathed the structure in a golden, welcoming glow. Nine stories high, and boasting large, wrought iron balconies on every floor, the beautiful stone structure brought to mind beloved childhood tales where happily-ever-after always reigned.
Would Laney find her own happy ending here tonight?
But she had to try. She had to forget that time had run out for her, that a shady, unscrupulous banker wanted his money in less than three days.
Three. Short. Days.
An impossible deadline.
Tears pushed at the back of her eyelids, a frightening reminder of her own helplessness, of the sharp, terrifying fear that she couldn't raise the five hundred dollars in time.
For weeks, Laney had prayed for an answer to her dilemma. She had all but begged the Lord to reveal a solution, any solution. Silence had met her countless appeals.
Now, with the clock ticking and no one to rely on but herself, Laney had to obtain the money on her own.
In the only way she knew how.
Please, Lord, please let him show.
Squaring her shoulders, she pushed through the rotating doors and entered the hotel's main lobby. Stepping to the side, she stabbed a cursory glance through the large room. The rich fabrics on the furniture, the expensive mahogany paneling on the walls and the polished marble floors spoke of an attention to detail Laney appreciated.
As much as she admired the beautiful decor, the tiny alcove in the far corner captured the majority of her interest. Small, private, out of the main traffic flow, the nook was a perfect spot for her clandestine meeting.
Head high, eyes cast forward, Laney made her way across the lobby. She kept her steps slow and purposeful, but not too obvious. She had to draw as little attention to herself as possible. Hard to do, considering the dress she'd borrowed for this occasion.
She prayed her choice of clothing hadn't been a mistake. The gown wasn't meant to entice, but rather to remind a man of his duty. And why he had that obligation in the first place.
Once nestled in the hidden alcove, Laney placed her back to the wall and waited for her quarry.
Searching faces only, a sense of foreboding slipped through her resolve. Her pulse kicked into an erratic rhythm, punching ruthlessly against her ribs. What if he doesn't show?
No. She couldn't give into doubt.
Her entire plan hinged on Joshua Greene's cooperation. And his assumption that she was a woman of questionable character. Sighing past a wave of guilt, Laney shifted her position slightly, ran her gaze through the room once more, but found no one bearing the familiar mane of gray hair and ruddy features she sought.
Another adjustment to her stance and she felt her attention pulled to the left, inexplicably drawn to the most compelling pair of steel-blue eyes on a man she'd ever seen.
Their gazes locked. And held.
Why couldn't she look away?
Stunned at her own daring, she pressed her lips tightly together. Her breathing hitched in her throat. For a terrifying instant, every rational thought receded from her mind.
Riveted into immobility, she continued staring at the handsome stranger. He stared back. Boldly, relentlessly, with a bleak expression on his face. That look, that stern, unyielding glare sent a shiver tripping along her spine.
Laney quickly broke eye contact. Something felt off about this whole situation, now more than ever. A sense of impending doom urged her to leave the hotel immediately.
She ignored the sensation, knowing she couldn't leave. Not yet. Not without her money.
Against her better judgment, her gaze sought the handsome stranger once again.
He hadn't moved from his earlier position.
This time, his lips curved around a fixed smile. Distrust, suspicion, they were both in his gaze.
Who was he? And what did he think she was planning to do here tonight?
Knowing how she was dressed, sensing he'd come to the absolute wrong conclusion, she nearly rushed out of the hotel.
The children, she told herself. Think of the orphans.
The reminder helped her recover the necessary courage to finish what she'd come here to do. Yanking her gaze free, Laney melted deeper into the shadows of the alcove.
She held her breath, waiting, counting the endless seconds, praying the stranger would grow tired of watching her and leave. Finally, after shooting one more look in her direction, he disappeared into the adjourning restaurant near the bank of elevators.
Instead of experiencing joy over his departure, another bout of uncertainty reared.
Again, Laney disregarded the feeling.
She could do this. She had to do this. For the abandoned children who needed the safety of the home she alone provided.
A movement at the hotel's entrance cut through her thoughts. Joshua Greene had arrived.
Relief nearly buckled her knees, even as the well-dressed, gray-haired gentleman paused in the doorway. Laney eyed him cautiously, hopefully. Dressed in an expensive, hand-tailored suit, the cut as elegant as the man himself, Judge Greene looked every bit the distinguished Denver citizen that he was.
He glanced around the room with a caged expression on his face. Apparently, he was as unsettled by the nature of their impending transaction as Laney.
Wanting to ease his mind, she moved out into the open and flashed her brightest smile at him. He did not return the gesture. Instead, he tugged his hat over his face and set out in her direction.
Despite her impatience to be finished with this uncomfortable meeting, she waited until he was nearly upon her before speaking. "Good evening, Judge Greene."
A brief nod was his only answer.
So, he was going to play it that way. Laney sighed. "I'm sorry we had to meet this way." And she was. More than she could put into words.
"I, too, am sorry, Miss O'Connor." His lips twisted into a frown. "But I suppose it's better than the alternatives."
It was her turn to nod in agreement. Given the unorthodox nature of their relationship, Laney could never have met him at his home, or hers. And certainly not his office in the courthouse. The Hotel Dupree provided them anonymity.
Wanting to protect his identity as best she could, Laney took his arm and pulled him into the shadows with her.
He followed willingly.
Once they were out of sight of the other hotel guests milling about, he wasted no times with pleasantries.
"Miss O'Connor." He kept his voice low, his words barely audible over the din from the lobby. "As much as I sympathize with your predicament, you must never again contact me as you did this morning. Such recklessness goes against our original arrangement."
The reminder slammed into her like a punch. "I had no other choice," she whispered.
"I know, my dear." Softening his tone, he patted her hand with a benevolent, fatherly touch. "I understand this is difficult for you. Truly, I do. If it's any consolation, you look very much like your mother tonight. Quite beautiful, really."
Instead of relishing the compliment, Laney's heart filled once more with guilt.
She hated putting this man in such a precarious situation. But what else could she do? Her loan had been called in six months early. And this former "friend" of her mother's owed Laney far more than she was asking of him tonight.
Considering the circumstances, he was getting off easy.
Keep telling yourself that.
As if wishing to finish their business as quickly as possible, he slipped a hand inside his coat then pulled out his wallet. A flick of his wrist and she was in possession of her money.
Surprised at how quickly the transaction had gone, Laney automatically curled her fingers over the large bundle and pressed it to her heart.
"Can I assume this settles our account?"
"Yes." She gave him a firm nod. "Thank you, Judge Greene. As per our agreement, you owe me nothing more."
"Excellent." He turned to go, then spun back around to face her. "I know I don't have to remind you of the necessity for secrecy, but under the circumstances, I feel I must verbalize my request so there is no misunderstanding."
Knowing what was coming next, Laney waited silently for him to continue.
"Never reveal who gave you this money, Miss O'Connor.
She clutched the bills tighter in her fist. "No, I won't. Your secret is safe with me."
"Thank you. I trust we shall not meet again. I " As if only just realizing what he was saying, a sad smile crossed his lips. "Take care of my boy."
Such an easy request. "You may count on it."
Without another word, he pivoted on his heel. This time, he didn't turn around.
Light-headed from joy over her success, Laney slumped against the wall and sighed. She glanced after the judge's retreating back. He moved quickly, already halfway to the bank of elevators. At least he was sticking to their plan. As agreed, he would ride to the ninth floor of the hotel, and then exit the building by way of the back stairwell.
Laney would leave the way she came, after she drank a cup of coffee in the restaurant. Twenty more minutes and she could put this whole ugly business behind her.
The thought that she'd jeopardized the reputation of the most respected judge in town left her with a mild case of regret. But then she drew on the image of the children sleeping soundly in their beds. One in particular came to mind and her conscience eased.
Regardless of what Judge Greene told himself, he hadn't come here tonight out of altruism. Nor had he shown up to pay off the debt he owed, at half the cost. No, he'd come to ensure Laney kept his son's parentage a secret.
He'd paid handsomely for her silence. Or so he'd thought. What he didn't know, what Laney hadn't reveal during their transaction, was that she would have kept his secret for free.