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Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, 1880s
Alexa Quinn stood tensely in the doorway of the ballroom. Although the last half-dozen guests were milling about, her attention and her thoughts fixated on her father and Elliot Webster. The pair stood beside the fireplace, each with a drink in hand. Elliot had dogged Alexa's steps most of the evening and she sincerely hoped he hadn't pulled her father aside to ask for her hand in marriage. Dissatisfied as she was with her life, it would be infinitely more boring if she married Elliot. Even his dashing good looks, wealth and outward charm couldn't overshadow the fact that Alexa didn't like him.
She had learned to trust her instincts, as they pertained to zealous suitors, and they hadn't failed her yet.
"You've done it again, my dear," Benjamin Porter praised as he approached. "No one hosts a better party in Santa Fe. I'm sure your father is exceptionally proud of your skills."
Alexa dragged her anxious gaze away from her father and Elliot Webster to nod graciously to the short, pasty-faced math whiz who was one of her father's closest advisors. "Thank you, Ben. I appreciate that."
The truth was that Alexa didn't give a whit if she could organize a political or social function for her father and see that it ran smoothly. Harold Quinn might have fulfilled his ambitions as the territorial governor's appointed director of finance, who also served in several other capacities, and was considered the governor's most trusted counselor. She even understood that her father was preoccupied with his administrative duties to serve the greater good. Still, it was hard on her pride to know that her father saw right past her more often thannot. Furthermore, he hadn't realized her potential. That cut her to the core.
Her ambition extended beyond social director for his political gatherings. Her soul was screaming for the opportunity to find her true calling. She definitely couldn't find it if her father consented to a match with Elliot Webster.
After Ben Porter strode out the door, Ambrose Shelton approached. "Your party was passable," he remarked as he straightened the cuff of his black jacket.
You sourpuss, thought Alexa. The puffy-jowled, round bellied gent never failed to find more fault than praise with his acquaintances. According to her father, Ambrose Shelton had a brilliant political mind. His perspectives and guidance were invaluable.
Alexa was in no position to argue with her father's opinion, but she thoughtAmbrose had the social skills of a cranky grizzly. Keeping her observation of the dour, middle-aged, slightly balding man to herself, she said wryly, "There's a chill in the air tonight, Ambrose. Don't catch cold and lose your voice."
Ambrose snapped up his double chin. His ferretlike gray eyes bore into her. He puffed up to such extremes that she thought he might pop like an over-inflated balloon.
She flashed him a teasing grin, knowing she had gone too far with her father's valued associate. Mentally scrambling she added, "I don't know how Papa would manage if he couldn't hear your wise advice."
A tense moment passed. Then Alexa noticed a small crack in his stern veneer. She thought Ambrose might have smiled slightly, but it was difficult to tell because she'd never seen the man smile. Ever.
"I'm not sure your father deserves you, young lady," Ambrose said finally. "But then, we aren't allowed to pick family, are we? We're just stuck with what we get."
"So true of our families and our family's friends" Alexa slammed her mouth shut so quickly that she nearly clipped off the tip of her tongue.
Usually she managed to control her thoughts before they flew from her lips. Indeed, she had years of practice at concealing her true feelings. She blamed her lack of discretion on her apprehension over her father's continuing conversation with Elliot Webster. Either that or she had stifled her true nature for so long that it was about to burst loose.
Then the most peculiar thing happened. Ambrose Shelton, the persnickety, faultfinding advisor to Harold Quinn, snickered. Even Benjamin Porter halted on his way down the front steps, pivoted and did a double-take.
"Your poor father," Ambrose said with a slow shake of his wiry red head. "He's stuck with you and with me. Well, good night then." He pursed his lips and added, "Perhaps you should put your snippy tongue to bed early."
What an odd man, she thought as Ambrose waddled off on his tree-stump legs. Benjamin Porter scuttled alongside him, chattering nonstop, same as he did while he labored over accounts that pertained to territorial finances and budgets.
After John Marlow and William Trent, two other members of her father's advisory committee, said their farewells and ambled off, Alexa turned her full attention to her father. She grimaced apprehensively when her father and Elliot shook hands, and then finally parted company. Alexa stared warily at the tall, swaggering gentleman, who was decked out in the finest evening wear that money could buy. Elliot paused to bow over her hand and kiss her knuckles.
She controlled the shiver of dislike and reminded herself that she had years of experience masking her hidden feelings. However, she was more than a little worried about the outburst that had tumbled off her tongue so carelessly with Ambrose. It was a sure sign that her discontent with her present lifestyle was about to erupt.
"Ah, my lovely Alexa," Elliot purred. "I shall miss your enchanting company."
"You're leaving town?" She tried very hard to keep the hopeful note from flooding her voice.
"Eventually, my dear, yes. I have a mercantile business and a ranch to run in Questa Springs. However, I shall be here until the end of the week. I hope to have the pleasure of your company again before I depart."
Not if I can avoid it, she thought, but she said, "I'll look forward to it. However, I must tell you that I have a busy schedule. Obligations to Papa take precedence."
Elliot's hazel eyes crinkled at the corners and a lock of thin blond hair tumbled over his forehead as he glanced sideways. "Of course. I understand that your father is a busy man. Invaluable to the citizens of this territory."
"Extremely invaluable," she confirmed.
She all but collapsed in relief when Elliot released her hand then lurched around to swagger through the door. "He is going to make some woman an annoying husband," she said under her breath. "I pray to God that it won't be me."
"What do you think of Elliot Webster?" her father asked as he came to stand behind her.
Alexa spoke plainly, just in case her father had ideas about marrying her off to that cocky gent. "I don't think much of him. Pretentious. Calculating. Premeditated charm so sticky sweet that it gives me an instant toothache and"
"By all means, don't hold back, dear," Harold chuckled. "Ah, where is that tact and diplomacy that I've tried so hard to drill into your pretty head?"
She spun to face her father directly. This was a crucial moment and her future might be at stake. This was no time for diplomacy. "You asked for my opinion and I gave it to you. I don't like Elliot Webster and I can't imagine that I ever will."
She stared through the open door, watching a man in a military uniform, whose slight, lean physique seemed familiar to her, approach Elliot. The two shadowy figures spoke briefly before Elliot bounded into the carriage to return to his hotel.
"Webster expressed an interest in you, Lexi."
"It is not returned," she reiterated. "We are two entirely different people. At least I like to think I'm not that aloof and annoying."
Harold's brown eyes narrowed pensively. "He claims that he's taken an instant liking to you and that he would like to begin a courtship that leads to marriage."
Just as I thought, she mused uneasily. "I'm sure his supposed interest in me has everything to do with the prospect of becoming your son-in-law, not my devoted husband."
And there was the crux of her problem with men. Alexa could never be certain if men liked her for what she was inside or because her father was powerful and influential in the territorial government. She had learned early on that she was viewed as a tool to gain favors from Harold Quinn. She had never forgotten that humiliating lesson five years earlier. Back then, she had been naive and idealistic. Now she understood that love was an illusion and that men saw her as a pawn.
Turning, Harold motioned to Maria Gomez, the housekeeper. "Please bring Lexi and me some coffee. We'll be in the parlor."
The Mexican housekeeper strode off as Harold guidedAlexa to the tuft chair. "Actually, I'm glad you have no romantic interest in Webster. I don't know what he's up to or where he is getting privileged information, but it disturbs me that he knows things the rest of the public doesn't," he murmured.
Alexa perked up. Her father seldom took her into his confidence when it came to his business. He was usually too distracted and too busy to notice her in any capacity besides his hostess.
She savored this rare moment and vowed to do whatever was necessary to ease his concerns. She loved her father dearly, even if he had little time to spare her.
"What is it, Papa? You know I will help in any way I can."
Harold plunked down on the sofa, then expelled a frustrated sigh. "Thank you, honey. But I'll muddle through. No need to bother you with my concerns."
Bother me! Include me in your life! Notice me! Please stop overlooking me! "What has Elliot Webster done to draw your concern?" she prodded. "And it best not be entangled with a scheme to marry me. I don't want him."
Her decisive tone drew Harold's attention. He blinked, as if just realizing he had raised a daughter teeming with spirit and fierce independence. "When did this happen?" he mused aloud.
"About twelve years ago when Mama took Bethany and headed back East," she replied, then wished she'd kept her trap shut. The comment caused her father to wince and shift self-consciously on the couch.
"That fiasco wasn't fair to you, Lexi. I loved your mother, but I swear I will never understand why she left you behind."
Alexa clasped her father's hand, giving it a fond squeeze. "If I had been given a choice I still would have remained here with you," she insisted. "Now tell me what Elliot Webster has done to upset you."
Harold blew out his breath and set aside the troubled past. "In addition to his expressed interest in you, he asked about the government contracts to sell livestock to the forts and Indian reservations in the territory. The fact that I'm not satisfied with our last contract with him and have considered finding new suppliers is not common knowledge. I mentioned it at our last meeting. I fear that one of my trusted confidants has been compromised. I'd like to strangle whoever betrayed our policy of keeping such information quiet."
"I'm not surprised to hear that Elliot has found a mole and that he might be paying for information," said Alexa. "I don't trust that man because I get the feeling he always has an ulterior motive."
She also had a hunch about who might be willing to relay private information for a fistful of money. Ambrose Shelton headed up her short list of suspects. She predicted Ambrose believed himself far more capable of holding a powerful position in the territorial government than her father. Undermining Harold Quinn's work on various government boards and committees might allow Ambrose Shelton to move up the political ladder. It was speculation, of course, but Alexa would eagerly volunteer to investigate.
"Elliot Webster will be leaving Santa Fe at the end of the week," Harold continued. "Until he heads south to Questa Springs I will have someone shadow him."
"Good idea. The sooner you find the snitch the better," Alexa agreed.
"I also intend to hire an investigator to monitor Elliot's activities when he returns to Questa Springs," Harold confided. "I can't entrust this inquisition to any of my associates, in case one of them is involved. That means I must enlist the help of an outside agent."
Her father was frowning so intently that Alexa swore he was going to give himself more wrinkles. She could understand his dilemma. Everywhere Harold Quinn went the press followed. He lived under a microscope Which made the solution to his problem so simple that she could resolve it over their evening coffee.
Excitement bubbled through Alexa while she waited for Maria Gomez to set the silver tray on the coffee table. After the servant retreated, Alexa turned to face her father directly.
"This situation can be resolved easily," she declared while she watched her father sip his coffee.
Harold sniffed in contradiction. "I hardly think that is possible, my dear. I'm not sure who I can trust."
"Thank you so much for the insult."
Harold blinked owlishly then waved her off with a flick of his wrist. "Present company excluded, of course. But this is over your head, Lexi. Besides, I'd shoot myself before I placed you in possible danger."
There he goes again, ignoring my potential. "Who better to undertake the task of discreetly hiring an investigator to monitor Elliot's activities?" Alexa argued. "Even you refuse to consider the prospect of sending a woman to do a man's job."
Alexa cut him off with a slashing gesture of her arm. She was bound and determined to present her case without interruption. "Perhaps I could consult the sheriff or city marshal in Elliot's hometown to hire an investigator. Provided that Elliot doesn't have the local lawman in his hip pocket." If Elliot was in the habit of paying for information that was always a possibility. "Now that Elliot has expressed an interest in me, I have the perfect excuse to visit the area. I can pretend an interest in him, too."
"No. Absolutely not," Harold objected strenuously.
Alexa's mind was brimming with possibilities. This was her chance to prove to her father that she had talents and abilities that extended far beyond the skill of drawing up a guest list, organizing seating arrangements and hiring entertainment for social and political gatherings. If she pinpointed the information leak, he might perceive her as what she wasa young woman aching to find a meaningful purpose in her life and accept new challenges.
"It's perfect," she enthused. "Kate Hampton, my dearest friend from finishing school, lives near Questa Springs. I can schedule a visit and make myself available for Elliot's supposed courtship. I can oversee the hiring of an investigator and make certain the man does his job properly. In no time at all we will know who is leaking information to Elliot."
His brown eyes flashed and his thick brows swooped down in a sharp V. However, Alexa was not to be deterred by her father's evil eye and uncompromising frown.
"I have spent years guarding my tongue and refraining from speaking my mind," Alexa declared. "Even the pompous asses you deal with on a weekly basis have no idea what I think of them."
Harold's brows shot up so quickly that they nearly rocketed off his forehead. "My God, who are you? And what have you done with my daughter?"
Alexa sat up a little straighter on the couch. She batted her blue eyes and smiled sweetly. "Why, Papa, whatever do you mean? I am the same devoted daughter who knows her place and happily remains within the narrow confines men have established for women."
She was very much afraid her father's eyes were about to pop from their sockets. She had altered her persona so quickly that he couldn't keep up. Well, too bad. It was high time Harold Quinn accepted that she had a mind of her own and ached to use it. It was also time that he realized she didn't intend to live in his shadow, performing mundane social duties when her heart cried out for the chance to pursue a worthwhile cause.