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West Texas, 1886
Approaching the stage that would take her to Abilene, Zoe Keeler felt as if she were going to the woodshed. The very idea of having to ask her grandfather for anything irritated her so much that her entire body prickled with a heat that had nothing to do with the warm May morning.
The Whirlwind stagecoach waited in front of the stage stand between Pete Carter's saloon and the livery he also owned. She hung back as her younger brother, Zeke, clambered into the coach that would take them to the meeting that already had her stomach tied in knots. The urge to grab her brother and go back home was nearly overwhelming.
Instead, she opened her reticule and pulled out the telegram concerning her sisterworn from being read so many times. Dinah's tuition at the Connecticut Asylum for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons at Hartford was due in less than a month and it had been increased by fifty dollars.
It might as well be five thousand. Zoe sighed. She simply didn't have the money. Or the means to get it, she admitted. Last year's drought had brought hard times to everyone. Many of her friends and acquaintances were having as hard a time as she was making ends meet.
Palms clammy, she smoothed down the skirt of her navy serge traveling dress trimmed in white then adjusted her matching navy felt bowler hat. Both had been a Christmas gift from Josie Holt, the seamstress who sometimes employed Zoe.
She didn't know why she bothered trying to look smart. Her mother had never measured up in Grandfather Upton's eyes; there was no reason to think Zoe would either. But knowing she wore her best clothes gave her a little bit of confidence.
Even so, she'd be a bundle of nerves by the time she faced her mother's father.
Zeke was settled. Pete had stowed their one valise and was waiting in the high seat. She moved around the back of the stage and toward the open door. A wooden step had been placed there for assistance in boarding.
As she slipped the telegram back into her reticule, a sun-darkened masculine hand appeared to help her inside.
"Thanks, Pete." She glanced over, her smile dying as her gaze collided with Quentin Prescott's.
His hand tightened on hers as if he could tell she wanted to pull away, which she did. He sat in the wheelchair he'd used for the past seven years, bronzed skin stretched taut over his sharp features. His black hair and mustache were neatly trimmed, his dark eyes sparking with a light she hadn't seen since his injury.
Zoe couldn't tear her gaze away. The broad shoulders and muscular arms gave testament to how active he was despite being chair-bound.
Neither of them went out of their way to avoid each other in the course of a day, but they kept their distance.
What was going on? His gaze held hers, softened. Lands! The last time he had looked at her that way was before his legs had become paralyzed and he had pushed her away as though she was diseased.
The flash of uncertainty on his face said he expected her to pull away at any moment. She tried again, but his hand tightened on hers. Taken aback at finding him so close, at his touching her, she could only stare.
Her brother leaned out the open window. "Hi, Quentin!"
"Zeke." The man's voice was deliciously low, causing a flutter in her stomach.
Realizing that the driver was staring as hard as her brother, Zoe quickly climbed inside and released Quentin's hand.
"Thank you," she murmured, arranging her skirts, cursing the heat crawling up her neck. As fair as she was, there was no chance Quentin would miss that. No one would.
"Going to Abilene?" he asked.
She nodded, her palms clammy now for a reason that had nothing to do with her grandfather.
He glanced at the driver. "Pete, you armed?"
The other man gave an indignant snort.
"Good." At Zoe's frown, Quentin said, "Matt Baldwin finally caught the rustlers who've been hitting this area."
"The Landis brothers?" she asked.
"Yes. They were all killed in a shoot-out yesterday except for one. Bram Ross is on his trail."
"That would be Cosgrove," Zoe said. Pete had mentioned that the man formerly believed to be a ranch manager was actually the head of a gang of rustlers.
She wondered if she should postpone her trip.
Quentin seemed to read her mind. "You should be safe. Pete's armed and if Cosgrove were anywhere nearby, Bram would've already caught him and hauled him back here."
The unmistakable look of concern in his eyes had resentment bubbling up. Since when did Quentin bother himself over her welfare?
She nodded. She might as well get this visit over and done.
Biting her lip, she looked away from the man who could still put a flutter in her belly. "Ready, Pete."
"Yes'm." The bowlegged man clucked to the team of four horses and snapped the reins.
The stage lurched into motion. Just before it reached the edge of town, Zoe eased toward the window, enough to peek out.
Quentin was still there in his wheelchair, watching.
He smiled, a slow warm smile that traveled right through her to the tips of her toes.
He lifted a hand in goodbye and she jerked her gaze away. She didn't know what he was up to, but she wasn't dancing that dance again. Seven years had passed since they had parted ways. Since they had kissed.
The memory of those kisses still sent a ripple across her nerves like a pebble over water. They were kisses she'd spent a lot of time trying to forget.
Humph. She didn't care how sweetly he smiled or how his voice did things to her insides. They were finished. He'd made sure of that.
Zeke settled back in his seat, humming with excitement. His blue eyes shone with his usual good humor. "Quentin said he would show me his bees sometime. He said I could come to his job at the newspaper, too, but I knew you wouldn't like me doing those things."
Zoe frowned. Though he was as big as any man, her brother was still a teenager.
"But you're friends again," he said excitedly. "So I can."
Zoe and Quentin weren't friends, but she didn't have the heart to correct her brother. Not for the first time, she wished things were as uncomplicated for her as they were for Zeke, whose mind worked a little more slowly than most people's did.
"He's really smart, huh?"
About most things, she thought grimly.
Zoe wished her brother would stop talking about Quentin Prescott. She had bigger things to worry about, like her upcoming meeting with Grandfather.
Four hours later, she and Zeke stood in Burl Upton's grand library on the first floor of his mansion just east of Abilene. The three-story stone house was fancy and modern. Grandfather had employed an engineer to build advanced mechanical systems for gas lighting, central heating and indoor plumbing with hot and cold running water.
Because her mother had been estranged from her grandfather, Zoe had never set foot in this house. She had learned all about it from the livery hand who had driven her and Zeke out here.
They'd been allowed to wash up in a bathing room that rivaled the fancy ones in Whirlwind's new hotel. And she'd been shocked to see a tintype of her mother on one wall in the foyer. Now, Zoe's eyes were as big as Zeke's as they stared around the spacious library with two walls of filled bookshelves, a massive oak desk and a hulking leather chair behind it.
Sunshine streamed in through a bank of windows along the opposite wall. The dark wood floor was polished to a sheen, covered by a large rug in muted reds and golds. A gold velvet-clothed settee and three matching chairs provided a separate area for sitting. The entire Keeler house would fit in this library with room to spare.
Zoe didn't care about that. Surely Grandfather could see his way to giving her the inheritance left by her mother so Dinah could stay at school. Once she began attending the special school, Zoe's older sister had rapidly learned sign language. She was now catching up on subjects she'd been forced to miss at regular school due to her deafness.
At the sound of heavy footsteps entering the room behind them, Zoe stiffened. Zeke pressed his man-size body closer to her. A tallvery tallman walked behind the desk.
Blue eyes, the same shade as Zoe's and Zeke's, fixed on them. Apprehension skittered through her. Burl Upton lowered himself into the big leather chair that had probably been specially made for his size. He gestured to the pair of chairs in front of his desk, saying in a harsh, deep voice, "Have a seat."
Zoe's spine went to steel. "We'd like to stand, please."
"Stubborn, just like your mama." Beneath his slightly graying red hair, the older man's sharp gaze settled impassively on her face. "You look just like her."
Well, that wouldn't work in her favor.
She hoped that when Dinah's situation was explained, the man's heart would soften and he would just give Zoe the money or pay her sister's tuition.
Squirming under the hard gaze of the imposing figure in front of her, she told him about the telegram she'd received a month ago, ending with, "There just isn't enough work for me right now to earn the amount I need for her tuition."
"Work? What kind of work?" he asked sharply.
"Sometimes I help a seamstress. Other times, I fill in at Whirlwind's general store. I also have a steady part-time job at the Fontaine, our new hotel."
With each job she named, her grandfather's jaw clenched tighter.
By the time she finished, a vein was throbbing in his temple. "None of that is fit for a young lady. You should be married, tending to youngsters of your own."
Marriage and children were about as likely for her as flying to the moon. She had only ever considered marrying one man and any chance of that had ended years ago.
Upton looked her up and down critically. "You know the terms of your mother's inheritance so that must mean you're asking me for this money because you're about to be married."
Zoe couldn't bring herself to outright lie. "I want to keep Dinah in her special school back east."
"So, who's the lucky groom-to-be and when's the ceremony?"
Although she could later say the engagement hadn't worked out, she was loathe to name anyone. For one thing, most eligible men in Whirlwind were far too old or far too young for her.
Her friend, Mitchell Orr, would probably marry her for a satisfactory amount of time without expecting anything of her, but he was sweet on a young widow over in Merkel. Zoe knew he wouldn't risk losing what he had with her. If their roles were reversed, she wouldn't either.
"Well, girl," the older man prodded. "Who's this man you fancy?"
Zeke beamed at Grandfather. "Zoe loves Quentin." She went completely stock-still, nearly swallowing her teeth. Had her brother really said that? "Quentin who?" Burl demanded.
"Quentin Prescott," Zeke replied.
"Zeke," Zoe began.
Her brother continued, "He has bees and they make honey. He's going to show me how to take care of them."
The older man's eyes narrowed. "Is this true, girl?"
"Yes." She knew what her grandfather was asking, but she preferred to answer his question about Quentin's beekeeping.
She reached for Zeke's large hand and squeezed, hoping he would understand not to volunteer any further information. He looked at her, his smile fading as if he picked up on the tension in the room.
"And the date of the wedding?" Upton asked.
It was ridiculous that she had to marry in order to get the money her mother had left her. "Um, we're not exactly sure. Soon."
The old man nodded, studying her through narrowed eyes. For the first time, Zoe noticed he had the same blunt jawline as her brother.
She held her breath. He had to give her the money. He just had to.
"I'll transfer the funds into your account at the bank."
"You will?" Her relief was so great her knees felt weak. Now Dinah could stay in school. "Thank you. Thank you so much."
"When I return from your wedding."
"What?" she choked out, panic welling up inside her.
He rose, his big shadow stretching across his desk. "I have no intention of missing the wedding of my one grandchild who's likely to marry."
"Is there some reason you don't want me to attend?" His gaze, challenging and smug, pinned her to the spot.
Oooh, the mean old geezer knew she was lying. Well, she wouldn't give him the satisfaction of admitting it. "No. Of course not."
"You and Zeke will stay here tonight," he said. "We'll leave first thing in the morning on the stage."
"All right," she said shakily. Zoe felt sick to her stomach. She'd let her sister down.
Her mind raced for some other way to get the money, but she couldn't come up with anything. If she didn't have a plan by tomorrow morning, she would have to completely humiliate herself and ask Quentin to marry her.
Though she would rather tangle with a rattler, that wouldn't even be the worst of it.
Quentin would say no and she'd be right back where she'd started. No money for Dinah's tuition.
Quentin was sure he'd seen interest in Zoe's eyes. Well, pretty sure. The next day, impatience burned through him to find her, to determine if he was right.
That afternoon, he went out the back door of Dr. Annalise Fine's clinic, off the flat stoop and moved alongside her as they made their way to the front of the two-story building that also served as her home. Wagons rattled through the street and people called greetings to each other as they went about their business.
During his meeting with Annalise, he'd heard the stagecoach thunder into town and he wanted to know if Zoe was on board.
His gaze shifted to the opposite side of Main Street, to the Whirlwind Hotel directly across from Annalise's clinic, then it moved past the telegraph and post office, the Pearl restaurant and the jail. There was no sign of her.
As Zoe had gotten on the stage, she had looked worried. Of course, she hadn't volunteered any information.
Had she returned from Abilene yet? Why had she gone? He knew she had family there. A grandfather. But Zoe had never set eyes on the man, much less visited him.
After seeing her yesterday, Quentin hadn't been able to stop thinking about her. About them. He had been a prideful, stubborn fool to push her away after being crippled.
He had never stopped desiring her, and last night he had admitted what he had been thinking for a while nowhe wanted another chance with her.
Maybe she was still gone, dammit.
Beside him, Annalise said, "You can think further about the surgery, Quentin. There's no rush."