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Riverwalk, South Dakota
A splinter jutting from the boardwalk pierced Trace Ballentine's trousers. He cursed his luck. He growled at fate. How could it be possible that he was facing one of the most pivotal moments of his life with a piece of wood stabbing his rump?
Admittedly, he hadn't slipped by accident, but he hadn't intended to take a woman down with him, either. Still, here the lady was, sprawled across his lap in front of the ticket counter at the train depot, with the contents of her valise scattered near and far. Undergarments and shoes, ribbons and hatpins littered the boardwalk, mostly crushed under the stack of books he had been carrying.
He snatched his shattered spectacles from under his knee and plopped them on his nose.
Even through a spiderweb of broken glass he knew this woman. Even after sixteen years of foggy memory and change he recognized his one true love.
"Why, you big " She seemed to be searching for the nastiest word in her vocabulary.
"Oaf?" he supplied.
The accusation didn't sting; she'd called him worse dozens of times in playfulness. Still, that didn't mean he wasn't wounded to his soul.
Lilleth Grace Preston stared straight into his eyes without knowing who he was.
In every fantasy he'd ever had of their miraculous reunion they had showered tears and kisses all over each other.
He had vowed to love her forever, and damned if he hadn't. He'd cherished her memory since he was fourteen years old, yet not a twitch of her eyebrow or a blink of her lashes revealed that she recalled him.
To be fair, how could he have expected her to? The last time they had been together he had been gangly, whereas now he was tall and filled out. Over the years his hair had darkened from blond to brown. These days he wore a beard, trimmed short and neat. Back then he had barely sprouted peach fuzz.
He was nothing like the boy he had been, while she looked very much the same. With her red curls, snapping blue eyes and mouth that went from a grimace to a smile in a flash, he'd have known her even if he hadn't been cursed with a mind that remembered nearly everything.
"Kindly remove your person from under me, Mr ?" She arched one brow.
It's me. It's Trace.
"Clark," he declared. He wrinkled his brow, then added a hiccup.
"Mr. Clark, your"
"Clarkly, that is. Mr. Clark Clarkly, at your service, miss."
"Mr. Clark Clarkly, kindly remove your knee from my bustle."
"Your ? Oh, my word, I beg your pardon." He straightened his leg and reached for her hand, desperate for just one touch, even if that touch was through a leather glove.
She allowed him to help her to her feet. He then made a show of being a buffoon by attempting to straighten her skirt.
Curse it, he was a buffoon, and he didn't even have to act a part. Of all the disguises he could have chosen for this assignment, why did it have to be Clark Clarkly?
Had he ever dreamed that he might run into Lil-leth Preston he'd have made himself a lawman or a cowboy. Anyone but good old Clarkly, the bungling, bookish librarian.
But Trace was good and stuck now. Most of the citizens of Riverwalk had made the acquaintance of Clarklyrun into him, quite literally. He couldn't change identities midassignment. Too much was at stake. The innocent inmates at the Hanispree Mental Hospital depended on Clarkly.
He ought to thank his lucky stars that Lilleth hadn't recognized him. It broke his heart, but it was for the best.
Hot damn, he was stuck in a muddle of his own making with no way out. There was nothing for it but to dive in headfirst.
Lilleth slapped his hand where it attempted to straighten that fascinating, if tweaked, little bustle behind her skirt.
"Mr. Clarkly! Have you no shame?"
Good girl, Lils, he thought, you still hold your own against anyone.
"Why yes. Usually, that is. Miss, you pack quite a wallop." He shook his slapped hand, then stooped to gather her belongings from under his books.
She would think he was an idiot for plucking up her lacy, pink-ribboned corset, but that was as close to intimacy as he was likely ever to get with her.
Lilleth crouched beside him, her hand already in motion to deliver another swat. He shoved the garment at her, but not before he noticed that it smelled like roses.
"Don't you lay a finger on those bloomers." Lil-leth leveled a glare at him, snatched up her belongings and stuffed them into her valise. She snapped it closed, then stood up.
November wind, blowing in the promise of the first snow, swirled the hem of Lilleth's skirt. Her toe tapped the boardwalk with the one-two-three-pause, one-two-three-pause rhythm that he remembered. She was struggling with her temper.
He gathered up his books and, in true Clark style, layered them in alphabetical order. He'd intended her to notice that, and she had. She rolled her eyes and sighed.
"It has been a pleasure, truly." He offered his hand. "I'm sorry about the little knock-you-down. My deepest apologies, and welcome to Riverwalk."
Most women wouldn't accept his apology, given that he'd been clumsy upon stupid upon rude, but he left his hand extended just in case.
Lilleth stared at his face for a long time, studying, weighing, judging.
"I'm ever so sorry, Miss ?"
"Well, accidents do happen, after all." She shook his hand. The smile that had haunted his dreams pardoned him. "I'm Lilly Gordon."
Gordon? Married? No! Sixteen years ago she had taken his hand, pressed it to her twelve-year-old heart and vowed to marry him and only him.
"Hey, Ma, Mary's getting hungry."
A boy, no more than ten years old, walked up to Lilly Gordon carrying a baby.
"Cold, too," the boy added, frowning and shooting Clark an assessing look.
The baby didn't appear to be hungry or cold. In fact, it was bundled against the chill so that only a pair of blue eyesLils's eyesand a pert little nose peeked out.
Trace admired the boy for stepping up. Some big galoot had just knocked his mother down.
"Make Mr. Clarkly's acquaintance, Jess." Lilleth took the baby from the boy's arms. "Then we'll be on our way. There's the hotel, just up ahead."
"A pleasure to meet you, young man," he said. And it was, too, now that the shock was wearing off. He extended his hand.
The boy cocked his head, studied his face as his mother had done, and then, like her, made up his mind in an instant. He shook Clark's hand.
"Well, good day, then, Mr. Clarkly," Lilleth said.
A spray of red curls tumbled out from under her hat. Her smile warmed him in places that hadn't been warm in forever.
Jess picked up his mother's valise, his own, and carried a smaller one tucked under his arm.
Trace watched Lilleth and her little family walk toward the Riverwalk Hotel. It was a good thing it was so close, for the temperature seemed to be dropping by the minute.
He was proud of Lils. She had grown to be a fine and beautiful woman. Even with a baby riding her hip the sway of her gait would be enough to catch any man's eye.
It was a lucky thing for him that she was married.
He had his mission, one he was dedicated to. Mrs. Gordon had her family. Life would go on.
Yes, it was very lucky that she was married. He hadn't really thought Lilleth would remain his Lils forever. Everyone grew up, everyone changed. No one remained a child forever. Not him, and most certainly not the lovely woman walking away from him.
Lilly Gordon glanced back. She arched one brow and smiled with the shadow of a question crossing her face.
He gripped his armload of alphabetized books tight.
It's me, Lils. It's Trace.
Blessed heat poured from the fireplace in the lobby of the Riverwalk Hotel. Lilleth walked past the check-in desk, pointing Jess toward the big hearth.
November in South Dakota was a beast.
"Sit there, Jess." She pointed to a big padded chair, one of a pair flanking the fireplace. "Get your sister out of that blanket so the warmth can reach her."
Lilleth removed her coat and gloves. She stood before the fire, letting it warm her, front then back. It took a few moments, but the bitter cold finally quit her bones.
She glanced about, relieved to see the hotel lobby empty of patrons. Through an open door to her right she heard the ting of utensils against plates. An aroma of fresh warm bread swirled throughout the lobby, mixing with the scent of burning wood.
The moment she checked into her room, she would take the children to the dining room for dinner. They had to be hungry. The strenuous travel they had been forced to endure left little time for leisurely meals.
Riverwalk in November was not a place she would choose to be, but choice had been taken from her some time ago.
The hotel clerk bent down behind the tall counter. Lilleth took that moment to attempt to straighten her bustle. It had been crushed and bent beyond repair. No amount of yanking or pulling made a whit of difference to its appearance.
By all rights Mr. Clark Clarkly ought to pay for it. The man was beyond clumsy. Thank goodness it hadn't been Jess he had bowled over. He and Mary might have been injured. Mr. Clarkly ought to take his stroll with a warning to fellow pedestrians tied about his neck.
But there was something about him something almost familiar. She couldn't at this very second imagine what it was, though.
"I'll be back, Jess. I'm going to check in, then we'll get something to eat."
Frigid wind huffed against the windowpanes, but the hotel lobby was lovely and warm. Thank the stars that she had been able to wire ahead and get reservations on short notice.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Green." Lilleth read his name from the plaque on the counter. "My name is Lilly Gordon. I'd like to register for my room, if you please."
Mr. Green looked her over with interest, as men tended to do. It was a fact of life that nature and her mother had bequeathed her a figure that attracted men's attention. She had quit taking offense to their reactions years before. Men were men, after all, for good or ill.
"Mr. Green?" she asked, returning his attention to her face. "My room?"
The man blushed, ran his thumb down a list of names on the hotel register and then frowned.
"That's Mrs. Gordon," Lilleth said, feeling uneasy. The clerk ought to be smiling and handing her a key by now. "Mrs. Lilly Gordon."
He clicked his tongue against his teeth, then ran his forefinger over the register one more time. Halfway down, his finger stopped. He withdrew a pair of spectacles from his pocket, placed them on his nose, then bent low to peer at the page.
Lilleth tapped her foot.
Mr. Green closed the book and pressed his long, thin fingers on top of it. He cleared his throat.
"I do apologize, Mrs. Gordon. There appears to have been a mistake."
"Kindly check again." Tap tap, tap. "My reservation was confirmed."
"I see that, yes." The man shifted his weight. "But it appears that your room has been given to someone else."
Lilleth took a breath, slowly and calmly. She let it out, drawing deep down for a smile. You catch more men with lace than you do with homespun, she reminded herself. This philosophy was also something bequeathed by her mother.
"I'm sure you can provide them another room. Certainly they will understand once you explain the mistake."
"I'd like nothing more, Mrs. Gordon, but the couple in question are the elderly parents of the owner of this hotel. I can't rightly send them out in the cold."
Tap, tap "I'm not asking you to do that. I'm simply asking that you give them another room."
"There are no others. I'm sorry."
"No other rooms?" There had to be another room; she had reserved one! "Do you see my children over there, Mr. Green? Mary's only a baby. Would you send her out into the cold?"
He truly did appear remorseful. She brightened her smile and forced her toe to be still.
"Not by choice, no, I wouldn't. But it's out of my hands."
"Whose hands would it be in, then, Mr. Green?" This error would be corrected or she was not Lilleth Preston. "We'll wait right here in the lobby until you find the person who can correct this error."
"It won't do any good. No rooms means no rooms. The hotel is booked up long term. There won't be a room here or anywhere else for a good while." Mr. Green reopened the register and flipped through a few pages. "Look for yourself. There's the Grange meeting in town. All the farmers and their families are here for it."
She would not take the children back out in the cold. They had only now quit shivering.
"Be that as it may, I do have a reservation." Lilleth looked about. There was nothing for it. "We'll take the lobby, then. The chairs by the fire will do well enough for now."
It served Mr. Green right to be choking on his Adam's apple.
"Come along, Jess," she called toward the fireplace. "Let's have a bite to eat before we settle into our chairs for the evening."
"May I be of service in some way?" said a low voice from behind her.
A deep breath, hands planted on her hips and a slow pivot brought her about to face a well-dressed man standing beside Mr. Green.