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Denver, Colorado, 1894
Molly Taylor Scott knew most people considered her a delightfully charming, sometimes frivolous young woman who loved being engaged almost as much as she loved the Lord. Molly would agree with this summation of her character, mostly. However, she would argue one key point. She was never frivolous.
Especially when it came to matters of the heart. Thus, as she stood outside Denver's most exclusive millinery shop, surrounded by several would-be suitors, she treated the situation with utmost gravity.
Twirling her parasol, she gave the men her undivided attention. A rather difficult task, when one of the four seemed determined to monopolize the conversation. Molly stopped listening to the conversation as somethingsomeone exited the Arapahoe County Courthouse one block north.
Senses poised, she turned her head ever so slightly and caught sight of Garrett Mitchell moving at a clipped pace in her direction. He looked incredibly handsome today, every bit the successful attorney he'd become in the past few years.
Eyes cast forward, he made swift progress down the lane, never once looking at Molly or acknowledging her presence. Still, her breathing quickened and her heart stuttered.
Stupid, stupid heart. An undertow of anger rolled through her. Interesting thing, anger; it signified she still cared.
She really shouldn't still care.
Not about Garrett Mitchell. Or those sculpted features framed inside dark blond hair, or that brilliant mind lurking behind the oh-so-handsome face, or that cowboy swagger that had stayed with him long after leaving his family's ranch.
Why, why, why did he still affect her so? He'd walked away from her seven years ago. And I let him.
Molly sighed. Better that, than give in to fresh despair.
A masculine clearing of a throat drew her gaze back to the man on her right. "Miss Scott, you must agree to attend the opera with me this evening." He took her hand and beamed down at her. "I won't take no for an answer."
A chorus of objections and counter invitations rose up from the other three in their group. Repeating his request a second timeor was it a third?Mr. Giles Thomas gripped Molly's hand tighter and commanded her stare with an earnest one of his own.
He was not classically handsome, and he was certainly no Garrett Mitchell, but he had a pleasant enough appeal with his brown hair, brown eyes and rather ordinary brown suit.
"I'm afraid, Mr. Thomas, I must decline your lovely offer." She smiled brightly, even as she carefully extricated her hand from his bearlike grip. "Mrs. Singletary has already requested my company in her box this evening."
At times such as these Molly was ever grateful for her position as a personal secretary and companion to the most prominent widow in Denver. As if speaking her employer's name could summon the woman herself, Mrs. Singletary exited the millinery shop, her arms overflowing with her purchases.
Welcoming the interruption, and feeling guilty for waiting outside while her employer shopped, Molly set her parasol against the building and hastened forward. "Let me help you."
She retrieved the boxes, juggling the heaviest with her left hand and shifting around several more with her right. Sensing an opportunity to play the gentlemana shade too late by Molly's estimationMr. Thomas and the others began snatching boxes away from her.
She stumbled under their enthusiastic efforts, careening backward. A pair of strong hands captured her shoulders and steadied her. Once she had her balance, the hands dropped away.
Head spinning, heart pounding wildly against her ribs, she barely managed to push the name of her rescuer past her trembling lips. "Garrett."
A slow, affectionate smile spread across his face. Just as quickly, it disappeared. "Molly," he said in a bland tone.
"I. .that is.. " She swallowed, words backing up in the throat until she thought she might choke on them. "Thank you."
"Watch your step. The footing is uneven here."
He tipped his hat, muttered a hasty farewell and was gone.
Breathing hard, Molly blinked after his retreating back. It was always the same whenever their paths crossed. A brief moment of understanding, followed by an awkward exchange of stilted words and then nothing but a bone-deep sense of loss that left her heart aching.
No. Oh, no. No more wallowing. No more wishing for what might have been. Molly was finished with Garrett Mitchell and unrequited love. She was also finished with the four men still arguing over her.
Unnaturally quiet throughout her tete-a-tete with Garrett, as well as now, Mrs. Singletary eyed Molly with a speculative, almost calculating gaze. At last, as if finally finished weighing the situation, she held up a hand. "Gentleman, that's quite enough."
All four went very still, very silent.
"This boorish behavior is not helping your cause with the young lady."
Hastily worded apologies rang in the air.
"Not to me, you scoundrels." Mrs. Singletary shook her head in annoyance. "Miss Scott is the one you have offended."
And thus began another round of excuses stacked upon blame.
Only half listening, Molly nodded and smiled and generally wished to be anywhere but here. In silent understanding, Mrs. Singletary winked at her then resumed her glowering.
The expression of disapproval did nothing to hamper the woman's remarkable features. She had been a renowned beauty in her day. Her hair was still a rich, golden brown. Her face remained smooth of any sign that two decades had come and gone since Mr. Singletary had won her hand in marriage.
The argument continued, reaching ridiculous proportions, until Mr. Thomas pushed forward. "Since you have denied me your company this evening, you must allow me to escort you home now."
More disputes arose.
Again, Mrs. Singletary took control. "None of you will be escorting the lady home, for the simple reason we are not heading that way just yet."
Since the widow was one of the most powerful women in town, not many folks were brave enough to chance her displeasure. Molly's current admirers proved no exception.
"Now, my dear, be so kind as to retrieve my packages from these young men and say goodbye."
There was a moment of jostling, followed by a bit of tugging and pushing but, finally, Molly was once more in possession of Mrs. Singletary's purchases.
After another flat-eyed scan of the group, the older woman dismissed the lot of them. Grumbling under their breaths, they scattered in four different directions, eventually absorbed by the noise and bustle of the busy Denver streets.
"Where to next?" Molly asked, breathing a sigh of relief. "The dress shop, perhaps?"
"Not today. I have a mind to study my hats before deciding if I need a new gown or two to match."
She considered the boxes in her hands. "Did you find anything worth wearing immediately?"
"Hardly, but I trust you will put them right soon enough."
"I'd like nothing better." Molly found great pleasure in turning an otherwise predictable hat into a new creation, with an added touch of flare all her own.
Staring off in the distance, Mrs. Singletary made a small movement of her head. "I wonder why Mr. Mitchell left so quickly after his gallant rescue."
Molly masked the falter in her step. Garrett had been especially chivalrous this afternoon. But that was Garrett simply being Garrett. He would have done the same for any woman. She was nothing special to him, not anymore. The surge of sorrow was so strong it threatened to consume her. And and
And Mrs. Singletary had just asked her a question. Releasing a tempered breath, Molly lifted a shoulder. "He was clearly in a hurry."
She sounded so calm, so in control. It was quite an act, when her heart was as bleak as a cold, rainy day. "You are friends with his sisters, are you not?"
"Hmm, very strange he didn't stick around and, I must say, quite inconvenient." Mrs. Singletary planted her fists on her hips, her gaze turning shrewd. "I have a business proposition of some urgency I had wanted to discuss with him."
Molly cast her employer a quick, baffled look. Garrett worked at Bennett, Bennett and Brand, yes, but Mrs. Sin-gletary's personal attorney was Reese Bennett, Jr. Therefore, it seemed rather odd that the older woman would approach Garrett in lieu of her own lawyer.
"Why wait any longer?" The widow spun around and set out toward the law firm. "I shall speak with him now."
Molly trotted after Mrs. Singletary. Fingers curled into fists, she affected a placid tone. "But " Think, Molly, think. "You don't have an appointment."
"I don't need one."
True. Mrs. Singletary was the law firm's wealthiest and most influential client. Appointment or not, none of the attorneys would turn her away. "Are you certain this business you have with Mr. Mitchell can't wait until later?"
"Quite certain." She quickened her pace.
Molly did the same, her stomach tied in knots, her arms growing tired under the weight of the packages she carried.
Dodging the bulk of the traffic with practiced ease, Mrs. Singletary hastened along the narrow sidewalk. A block shy of the firm, she leveled her gaze on Molly and made a most unusual request. "I would like you present when I speak with Mr. Mitchell."
"Me? I don't understand." Mrs. Singletary had never asked her to attend her business meetings before.
"It's very simple, my dear. I want to see how Mr. Mitchell behaves in your company. And you in his."
Oh, this was bad. So very, very bad. "Mrs. Singletary, you aren't playing matchmaker, are you?"
The cryptic response made Molly all the more skeptical of her employer's motives. "Why do you wish to see how Garrett and I interact with one another?"
"It's important my personal companion gets along with my business associates."
Since when? "That's never mattered before."
"An oversight on my part."
So Mrs. Singletary was playing matchmaker. What a disastrous turn of events! Molly must dissuade her employer from this course of action, but how? If she protested too much she would only encourage the woman. "It's useless," she muttered.
"Now, my dear, one never knows. A few false starts are no indication that we won't find our one true love eventually." She patted her hand. "The Lord has brought you into my care. I shall see you happily settled no matter how long it takes."
Molly chose not to argue. Mrs. Singletary would discover soon enough that Garrett was not the man for her. Their time had come and gone, never to be regained. Tragic, really.
She suddenly felt exhausted, and oh so lonely. Even though others had claimed to love her since Garrett, none had been any more sincere than he. Molly had given two of them a chance, going so far as agreeing to marry them.
Her greatest shamethe dark, awful secret she shared only with the Lordwas that she hadn't been the one to call off her engagements. Her fiances had walked away from her, just as Garrett had. Nearly eight months since her last broken engagement and she couldn't help but wonder if she was destined to be alone. When all she wanted was a family of her own.
This melancholy wasn't like her. She'd always been a child of joy, of hope, her favorite Bible verse also her life motto. He fill thy mouth with laughing, thy lips with rejoicing.
Where was her joy now? Her laughter?
She fought off a wave of panic, and readjusted the packages in her hands. She could not give up hope, because without hope all was lost.
Secluded in his office, Garrett felt his mood take on a hard edge. He couldn't get Molly Taylor Scott out of his head.
The document beneath his hand blurred, the words a haze of black swimming atop white. He drummed his fingers on the parchment in a rapid two-finger rhythm. The sight of Molly this afternoon had been like a swift, cold wind through Garret's soul, alerting all his senses, making him agonizingly aware that they'd once been very much in love.
The bold color of her crimson gown had been a stunning complement to her raven hair, soft, creamy skin and blue, blue eyes. For that brief moment when he'd gripped her shoulders, the years had melted away and Garrett had felt the strong pull of her all over again. He'd been transfixed.
The four men surrounding her had been equally transfixed.
Hostility surged through his veins at the memory.
Rearranging the Phipps contract on his desk, he proceeded to review the legal language. A detail man by nature, he searched for loopholes others had missed, areas that might present problems in the future. Even a misplaced comma could change the meaning of a sentence and cost his client a fortune.
He was deep into the work when a knock came at the door. Concentration blown, he looked up. "Enter."
His law clerk, Julian Summers, a thin young man with ordinary features and an eager smile, stuck his head in the room. "Mrs. Beatrix Singletary has requested a moment of your time."
"She wishes to see me?" Not Reese? "Are you certain?"
" She requested you. And she's not aloneher companion is with her." Adam's apple bobbing, Summers sighed. "She's really quite beautiful. Miss Scott, I mean. Charming, too."
The man sounded awestruck. He looked awestruck, with his fidgeting hands and dazed expression. Right. Another poor, unsuspecting sap had succumbed to Molly's undeniable charm.
"Send in Mrs. Singletary. And" Garrett's jaw tightened "her companion."
"Very good." Summers hurried out, leaving the door ajar.
By the time Garrett crossed the room, he found the women already standing at the threshold. While Molly transferred an assortment of packages into his law clerk's care, Garrett schooled his features into a blank expression. His well-honed composure evaporated the moment Molly turned and looked at him.
His heart slammed against his ribs, his breath hitched in his lungs. Now who's the sap?
He cleared his throat. "Ladies, please, come in."
Eyebrows raised, Mrs. Singletary brushed past him and began a slow perusal of his office. Molly followed a step behind. Her floral scent hit him like a rough blow to the heart.
When he finally ventured to look into her face again, and she didn't quite meet his gaze, he felt a sense of validation. Though she hid her reaction behind a benign smile, Molly was nervous in his company. At least he wasn't alone in his struggle to remain indifferent.
Affecting a bland expression of his own, he edged around her and concentrated on the task of directing Mrs. Singletary to a chair facing his desk.
While he waited for her to settle, he watched Molly wander to the lone window in his office and look out. Her shoulders were unnaturally stiff. Garrett suspected he was the cause of her tension and that wrecked him. He wanted to go to her, to tease a laugh out of her like he had when they were children.
He no longer had that right.
Adopting a relaxed demeanor for this odd meeting, he sat on the edge of his desk in front of Mrs. Singletary. "To what do I owe this unexpected honor?"
The widow set her reticule carefully on her lap and got straight to the point. "I have a mind to expand my business holdings into new areas and I want you to assist me."
He blinked at the unprecedented request. He'd met the widow only a few times, the most recent when she'd been about to invest in a lumber operation and Reese had asked Garrett to review the final contract with her.
"I see I have shocked you." She looked rather pleased at the prospect, proving her reputation as an unconventional woman with a penchant toward the outrageous.
"Why not make this request of your own attorney?"
"Reese will continue overseeing my legal matters, but I have decided that you, Mr. Mitchell, will assist me with the expansion of my fortune."
By the satisfied expression on her face, she knew she'd piqued his interest. This was just the sort of opportunity perfectly suited to his skills. "Again, why me?"
"I should think that obvious. You were invaluable during my purchase of the lumberyard."
"I merely did my job."