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THE STREETS OF ATLANTA WERE MUDDY FROM the recent rain, and the poor carriage horses seemed lacking in spirit as they strained to pull their burdens along Peachtree Street. Claire Lang watched them, wishing she had the money to hire a ride back to her home, a good five miles away. The stupid buggy had hit a rock and broken an axle, adding to the financial worries that had plagued her for months. Will Lang had been so impatient for the motorcar part he'd ordered from Detroit that Claire had taken the buggy up to Atlanta to get the small part for her uncle from the railway agent. The buggy was old and in bad shape, but, instead of watching the road, she'd been looking for early signs of autumn in the gorgeous maple and poplar trees.
She'd have to get to her friend Kenny's clothing store the best way she couldand then hope that he could spare the time to drive her down to Colbyville, where her uncle lived. She looked at the caked mud on her high-topped shoes and the filthy hem of her skirts and grimaced. The dress, navy blue with a lacy white bodice and collar, was brand-new. Her cloak and parasol had protected the rest of her from the rain, and her hat had shielded her brown hair in its bun, but no amount of lifting had spared her skirts. She could imagine what Gertie would say about that! She was always untidy, anyway, puttering around in her uncle's shed, helping him keep his new motorcar running. Nobody else in Colbyville had one of the exotic modern inventions. In fact, only a handful of people anywhere in the country owned motorcars, and most of theirs were electric or steam. Uncle Will's device was fueled by gasoline, which he purchased from the local drugstore.
Motorcars were so rare that when one went past, people would run out onto their porches to watch. They were objects of both fascination and fear, because the loud noise they made spooked horses. But most people looked at the motorcar as a fad that would quickly die out. Claire didn't. She saw it as the future form of transportation, and she was thrilled to be her uncle's mechanic.
She smiled wistfully. How fortunate her life had been since she'd come here to live with her uncle. Her parents had died of cholera ten years past, leaving their only child without a relative in the world except Uncle Will. He was a bachelor, too, with only his African housekeeper, Gertie, and a handyman, Gertie's husband, Harry, to help run the big house where he lived. Since she'd grown up, Claire had done her share of cooking and housework, but her greatest joy was helping to work on that automobile! It was a spanking new Oldsmobile with a curved dash, and just looking at it gave her goose bumps. At the end of last year Uncle Will had ordered it in Michigan; it had been shipped by rail to Colbyville as soon as it was built. Like most motorcars, it occasionally choked and coughed and smoked and rattled, and from time to time its thin rubber tires went flat on the rough, deeply rutted dirt roads that circled Colbyville.
The townspeople had prayed for deliverance from what they said had to be an invention of the devil, and horses took to the fields as if driven by ghosts. The town council had paid a visit to her uncle the day after his motorcar arrived: Uncle Will had smiled tolerantly and promised to keep the elegant little vehicle out of the way of the carriage trade. He loved his toy, which had all but bankrupted him, and he spent all his spare time working on it. Claire shared his fascination. He'd finally given in and stopped chasing her out of the garage so that bit by bit, she'd learned about boilers and gears and bearings and spark plugs and pistons. Now she knew almost as much as he. Her hands were slender and dexterous and she wasn't afraid of the occasional "bite" she got when she touched the wrong part of the small combustion engine. The one real drawback was the grease. In order to work properly, the bearings had to be continually bathed in grease, which got on everything including Claire.
Suddenly a carriage appeared on the street and Claire watched it draw near. When it was in front of her, it went through a puddlesplattering mud all over her skirts. She let out a groan and looked so forlorn that the driver stopped.
The carriage door opened and impatient dark eyes glared out at her. "For God's sake! Get in before you're even more soaked than you already are, you silly child!"
The voice, deep and familiar, had the power to turn her heart over. Not that he knew. Claire was careful to keep her feelings for her uncle's banker very close to her heart.
"Thank you, Mr. Hawthorn," she replied politely, smiling. She tried to make a ladylike entrance into his nice clean carriage as she folded the parasol and hiked up her skirts to the top of her shoes. But she tripped over the wet hem and landed in a heap on the seat, flushing because John Hawthorn made her so nervous.
Very dignified in his dark-vested city suit, he moved over to give her plenty of room, then rapped on the top of the carriage with his cane, signaling his driver to go ahead. "Honest to Pete, Claire! You attract mud like oats attract a horse!" He looked mildly exasperated as he surveyed the damage. "I have to get to the bank by opening time, but I'll have my driver take you down to Colbyville," he said, his dark eyes narrowing in his lean, handsome face. He had an innate fastidiousness, almost a coldness, with most women, as if he knew he was attractive to them and to maintain his distance. It had been the first thing that drew Claire's attention to him, a challenge to a woman's ego. But he wasn't cold with her. He alternately teased and indulged her, the way he would a very young girl. It hadn't bothered her so much two years ago. Now it did.
She'd first become acquainted with him when he took a job at the bank owned by Eli Calverson. He'd already worked his way up to being a loan officer the year before the Spanish-American War broke out, and John, with an educated guess as to where Cuban-American relations were going, had left the bank in 1897 to serve briefly in the army. Because his early education had been at the Citadel, a military college in South Carolina, he was able to go in with an officer's commission.
Wounded in Cuba in '98 and discharged, John returned to the bank, and Claire really got to know him. They'd been acquainted for some years because of her uncle, who had made several small investments through John and had secured loans on the strength of them to buy land. As she got to know him, her attraction grew, but she realized that it would take more than her pleasant face, pale gray eyes, and slender young body to interest a man like John.
He wasn't merely handsome, he was intelligent. After graduating from the prestigious Citadel he went on to get a master's degree in business from Harvard. He was vice president of the Peachtree City Bank now, and rumor had it that the bank's president, Eli Calverson, since he had no children, had handpicked John as his successor. Certainly John's rise in the bank had been a rapid one.
But gossip had run rampant lately about the elusive John Hawthorn and the beautiful Diane, the new young wife of the bank's middle-aged president. At thirty-one, John was in his prime and a physical specimen other men envied. Eli Calverson was in his fifties and not particularly attractive.
Mrs. Diane Calverson was petite, blonde, and blue-eyed, with a complexion like cream. She was cultured, well bred, and said to be related to most of the royal houses in Europe. In short, she was any man's dream. She and John had a lot more than the bank and their connection to Calverson in common. Two years before, they had been engaged.
"You're a gentleman, Mr. Hawthorn," Claire said, with reserved politeness, although her eyes twinkled at him.
The corner of his mouth turned upward. Obviously, he was amused.
Her eyes went to the cane he carried strictly for ornamentation. He was fit and athletic, a tennis player, and she knew from the few dances her uncle had escorted her to that John could dance better than most men. He smelled of some exotic cologne. It drifted into Claire's nostrils and made her heart race. If only he'd notice her. If only !
She straightened out her wet skirts, frowned at the mud caked on them. Her laced-up shoes were full of it, too; it would take hours with a scrub brush to get them clean again. Oh, dearand Gertie had only just stopped fussing about the grease on Claire's white shirtwaist!
"You look very untidy," John remarked gently.
She flushed, but her chin lifted. "If you'd walked three blocks in the rain in long skirts, I suppose you'd look untidy, too."
He chuckled. "God forbid. It was grease last time, wasn't it?"
She cleared her throat. "Uncle and I were changing the oil in his Oldsmobile."
"I've said it before, Claire that's not fit work for a woman."
He sighed. "Your uncle should speak to you," he said. "You're twenty years old. You need proper grounding in etiquette and social life so that you can behave like a proper lady."
"Like Mrs. Calverson, perhaps?"
His face was impassive. "Her manners certainly leave nothing to be desired."
"Indeed they do not," she agreed readily. "I'm sure Mr. Calverson is very proud of his wife." She studied her hands. "And probably very jealous of her."
His head turned. "I don't like insinuations," he said in a dangerously soft tone. "Are you presuming to lecture me?"
She arched her brows. "Why, sir, nothing was further from my mind. I mean, if you wish to become the subject of vile gossip and risk your position at the bank, who am I to interfere?"
His scowl was intimidating. Imagining he'd once looked at his troops in just that way, she wouldn't have blamed a single one of his solders for deserting. His voice was still soft, and more chilling for it, when he asked, "What gossip?"
"Perhaps I shouldn't have spoken," she said, giving him a nervous smile. "You can let me out here, if you please. I have no desire to be strangled on the way home."
He did look angry, but he never seemed to lose his temper, especially not with Claire. "I haven't given anyone reason to gossip," he said.
"You don't consider a candlelight supper, alone with a married woman, scandalous?"
He looked surprised. "We were hardly alone. It was at her sister's house, and her sister was present."
"Her sister was upstairs asleep. The servants knew it and told everyone else's servants everything they saw," she told him flatly. "It's all over town, John. And if her husband hasn't heard it yet, it's only a matter of time until he does."
He made a rough sound under his breath. He'd been careless in his obsessive desire to be alone againjust oncewith Diane. Her marriage to Calverson had been an act of vengeancewhen he'd refused to ask his people for a large advance on his inheritance for an elegant wedding and an expensive honeymoon. He'd joined the army by then and was certain that he would see action. She'd promised to wait but, within two months of his having been in Cuba, Diane apparently had found Calverson too handy, too rich, and too old not to drag to the altar.
John came from old money in Savannah, and he stood to inherit millions. But he refused to ask for a penny of it, preferring to make his own living. He was doing that now, thanks to his salary and some small investments. Calverson's support had given him an edge, although he knew his family background and his Harvard business degree had helped influence the man in his favor. Losing Diane had changed John, had made him cold. Now her marriage of less than two years seemed to be in trouble. She'd beseeched John to come to her sister's house for a meal so that she could ask him for help. How could he have refused, even with the risk of scandal? But the urgency of the situation seemed lessened upon his arrival, because whatever her motives had been in inviting him, she'd told him nothing. Least of all did she ask for any sort of help. She had only said that she regretted her marriage and that she still had a tenderness for him. But now they'd caused this terrible gossip that would threaten her good name, as well as his.
"Are you listening to me?" Claire persisted, dragging him back to the present. "It isn't just your reputation you're risking, it's Mr. Calverson's and hersand even the bank's."
He gave her a hard look. "I'm not risking anyone's reputation. But I can't think how this problem, if it is a problem, has anything to do with you, Claire," he remarked coolly.
"That's true," she had to admit. "But you're my uncle's friend as well as his banker. In a way, you're my friend, too. I would hate to see your reputation compromised."
"Would you, really? Why?"
She flushed and averted her face.
He leaned back, watching her with faint affection and touched by her concern. "Do you have a secret regard for me, Claire? A tendresse?" He teased her softly. "How very exciting!"
The flush grew much worse. She watched feverishly as the familiar Gothic lines of the bank came closer. He would get out of the carriageand she would be alone with her embarrassment. Why, oh, why, had she opened her mouth?
He saw her gripping her purse with both hands. While he disliked her intrusion into his privacy, she was just a sweet child whose observations shouldn't upset him. He indulged her more than any woman he'd ever known. He'd have thrown a man out of his carriage for less than what she'd just said to him. But she had a kind heart and she cared about him. It was difficult to be angry about that. She kindled protective feelings in him, too.
If it hadn't been for Diane, he could well have cherished this child. He leaned closer as the carriage began to slow down. "Well, Claire," he persisted in a deep drawl, "are you besieged with tender feelings for me?"
"The only feeling I have right now is a consuming desire to lay an iron pipe across your skull," she said under her breath.
"Miss Lang!" he said with mock outrage, and made it worse by chuckling.