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The man looked dangerous.
Dark, strong, unsmiling, he filled the hotel doorway. Leashed power radiated from his stillness. When he moved, the muscular coordination of his body was predatory rather than merely graceful.
Dear God, Willow Moran thought as she watched the man stride closer to her across the lobby of the newly built Denver Queen hotel. This can′t be Caleb Black, the God-fearing military scholar Mr. Edwards found to take me to my brother.
Willow′s dismay didn′t show in her hazel eyes or her posture. She didn′t back away so much as an inch despite the sudden frantic beating of her heart. The War Between the States had taught Willow that when a girl couldn′t run and couldn′t hide, she stood her ground with as much dignity as she could muster . . . and a two-shot derringer hidden in a special pocket of her skirt.
The knowledge of that cold steel weight lying between folds of silk comforted Willow now as it often had in the past. Gripping the small gun, she watched the dark stranger draw near. What she saw of him at close range didn′t comfort her at all. Beneath the shadow of his broad-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat, an icy intelligence watched the world from eyes the color of whiskey.
His voice was as intensely male as the thick mustache and black beard stubble that heightened rather than blurred the strong planes of his face. Yet the voice itself wasn′t harsh. It was deep, smooth, potent, like a midnight river flowing to an invisible sea. A woman could drown in that dark voice, in those tawny eyes, in the power that seethed beneath the man′s controlled surface.
"Yes, I′m Mi--er, Mrs. Moran," Willow said, feeling heat stain her cheekbones as she spoke the lie. Willow Moran she was. Mrs. she was not. "Have you come to take me to Mr. Black?"
Willow′s voice was too husky, almost breathless, but she could do little about that. It was difficult enough just to force air past the sudden tightness in her throat as the stranger′s masculine impact flooded over her in a dark, compelling tide.
"I′m Caleb Black."
Willow forced herself to smile. "Forgive me for not recognizing you. From Mr. Edwards′ description, I expected a somewhat older gentleman. Is Mr. Ed wards with you?"
There was a very faint emphasis on the word gentleman that most men would have missed, but not Caleb Black. His mouth shifted into a curving line that only a charitable person would have called a smile as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.
"Out in those mountains, Mrs. Moran, a gentleman is less use than a handful of spit. But I wouldn′t expect a fine southern lady such as yourself to understand that. We all know the importance you Virginians place on elegant manners." Caleb looked past her toward the wide doorway at the far side of the lobby. "Eddy and the Widow Sorenson are waiting for us over there."
A faint flush rose beneath Willow′s translucent skin, a combination of embarrassment at her own accidental rudeness to him and anger at Caleb′s intentional insult to her. She hadn′t meant to demean him with her careless tongue. The long journey from her ruined West Virginia farm might have hardened the muscles of her five Arabian horses, but it had turned her own brain to pudding.
Unhappily Willow admitted that she deserved at least some of the bleak appraisal in Caleb′s whiskey eyes, eyes which at the moment were lingering with faint contempt on the fit of her clothes. The dress had been tailored for her in 1862, before war had wholly ravaged her family′s farms and fortunes. New, the dress had more than allowed for each curve of Willow′s budding body. Four years later, Willow′s curves had become more pronounced. The cut of the dress had stayed the same. As a result, the blue-gray silk pulled across her breasts and fit tightly around her waist.
Yet it was Willow′s only silk dress. She had worn it because she expected to meet a gentleman who would appreciate her gesture toward a more gracious time. She hadn′t expected an unshaven gunfighter who would note only the bad fit or her cloths. Her chin came up slightly as she faced the man who so obviously didn′t like her.
"The war is over, Mr. Black."
"And you lost."
Willow closed her eyes, then opened them. "Yes."
The husky admission surprised Caleb, as did the sudden darkening of Willow′s hazel eyes. Surprise at finding that this quarry, Matthew "Reno" Moran, had a wife was giving way to the suspicion that the young woman with the tight dress and frankly sensual mouth was no quite what she represented herself to be. Reno′s woman, surely. But his wife? Probably not. Nothing Caleb had learned about Reno since he began hunting him indicated that Reno was the marrying kind.
Caleb looked Willow over again, taking his time, watching the color rise once more in her cheeks. the blush piqued his curiosity. Females like Willow couldn′t afford emotions or pride, yet it was apparent she had both.
Not for the first time, Caleb wondered what her so-called husband was like-what kind of fine southern gentleman could both seduce an innocent like Caleb′s sister Rebecca and inspired such passion in an experienced young man to the heart of the untamed West.
With a Shrug that made muscles shift and coil beneath the dark trail clothes Caleb wore, he dismissed his own curiosity. It didn′t matter that Willow was probably a Miss rather than a Mrs. Nor did it matter what the elusive Matthew "Reno" Moran was like. Caleb had been looking fir his sister Rebecca′s seducer for eleven months.
When he found Reno, he would kill him.
"Shall we go?" Caleb asked. "Or have you changed your mind about finding your...husband, is it?"
Cool golden eyes looked at Willow′s left hand, which was slender and without a ring. She flushed guiltily. She hated having to lie, but her brother′s letters had made it clear that he was living in a wild, uncivilized place. A young woman traveling alone in such a place was at risk. A wife, on the other hand, had a husband′s protection. Even an absent husband was enough to give other men pause.
"Yes," Willow said, clearing her throat. She met Caleb′s eyes with a combination of embarrassment and defiance. Only His. Copyright © by Elizabeth Lowell. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.