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West Texas, 1885
She'd sued a man for failing to marry her.
Russ Baldwin knew that was how Lydia Kent, the new partner he had yet to meet, had gotten the money to invest in his hotel. Well, half his.
What kind of woman took a man to court for breach of promise because he'd ended their engagement? Russ wondered as he dragged his tired carcass up the wooden steps from the hotel's boiler room. He walked past the kitchen, the grand staircase and across the lobby to the big steel grate in the floor. The Fontaine was almost ready for business.
Too bad he would be selling his interest in it shortly. His gaze took in the polished oak floor that matched the large registration desk positioned to greet people when they walked through the double doors. Pewter wall sconces above the tufted sofas on either side of the desk would burn continuously once Russ turned on the gas lighting. The high ceilings and the staircase opposite the registration desk were accentuated with oak molding, as was his office in the corner behind him.
Today was the first time he'd lit up the boiler for the hotel's steam heat and it hadn't worked. After an hour downstairs, Russ thought he'd finally figured out the problem—a dirt clod in one of the pipes.
The massive front doors were open and he watched the sun sink into the prairie's horizon. It hovered for a moment in a red-gold arc over the steeple of the church-cum-schoolhouse that claimed the opposite end of Main Street. The sounds of clopping hooves, rattling wagon wheels, and voices drifted in as the people of Whirlwind closed up shop and went home. Cooling October air swirled into the lobby, stirring up puffs of dust. The scent of charring wood, the dirty bite of coal clung to Russ as he knelt and stretched out a hand over the grate.
Hot moist air hit his palm and he chuckled. The dang thing worked! It actually worked! Just like the steam heat down at The Menger Hotel in San Antonio, where he had first seen the system. He knew business would have to build slowly and though this little town west of Abilene was growing quickly, The Fontaine needed to cater mostly to customers of modest means. But there were a few rooms for big spenders. He and Miz Lydia Kent had agreed via telegram, as they had with everything else, that they would experiment with a few of the same amenities featured at The Menger. So, a newfangled heating system had been installed and gas lighting put in the lobby. There was also indoor plumbing with four guest rooms boasting adjoining baths.
Those luxuries would be the draw of The Fontaine. Russ wanted a mechanical elevator, too, but there was no money for that right now. He'd been fascinated with the one he'd seen in San Antonio, riding it up and down the floors so many times the manager had asked him to stop. He might be able to talk Miz Kent into it later, even though he would no longer be part owner.
He took a rag out of the back pocket of his denims and wiped his grimy hands. Still kneeling over the grate, he listened to the bubbling hiss of the heat. The light tap of shoes had him glancing over his shoulder. At the sight of luscious curves and porcelain skin, he got to his feet.
She was taller than most of the women in town, her head almost reaching his shoulder. Dressed in a black tweed traveling suit with a black flat-crowned hat perched atop dark upswept hair, she had Russ's full attention.
She wasn't from around here. Russ knew every woman within a three-county range and this little lovely wasn't from Taylor, Callahan or Nolan County.
He had a hard time deciding if he favored her lush breasts or gently flared hips. Or—hell—her face. Raven-black eyes set off skin that gleamed like pearls. From the delicate winged eyebrows to the pert nose and the plump bowed lips, her features were perfectly proportioned. Her heart-shaped face was flawless, her cheekbones high but not sharp, her chin round. Her carefully arranged hair bared an elegant neck. Even her ears were pretty.
She smiled, revealing a deep dimple beside her mouth. Russ felt as if someone yanked his world to a stop and started it spinning in the other direction.
Her gaze skipped eagerly around the lobby.
Before he could tell her they weren't open for business yet, she stepped closer in a swirl of lavender scent and pressed a coin into his hand.
"My trunks are outside. Could you bring them in, please?"
Her voice was low and husky, like whiskey laced with honey. "Thank you."
"Sorry, ma'am." If he hadn't already known she was a stranger to these parts, that smoky drawl would've told him. Deep South. Georgia? Alabama? He glanced down at the fifty-cent piece in his hand. "We're not open."
"Oh, I know. I'm the owner."
So, this was Lydia Kent. A man could fall right into those black-velvet eyes. Dismissing the initial pull he'd felt toward her, he reached up to stroke his mustache before remembering he'd recently shaved it off. "The owner, huh?"
"So am I."
Surprise flashed across her refined features. "You're Mr. Baldwin?"
"Russ, please." Returning her money, he forced himself to stop looking at her mouth.
She shifted, her cheeks coloring as she held out her gloved hand. "Lydia Kent," she said briskly.
He shook her hand, stunned when the brief touch traveled through him like the snap of a whip. Judging by the way her eyes went wide, he wasn't the only one affected.
Moving slightly away, she slipped free of his hold. "Um, how's your father?"
"His leg's on the mend," Russ said, feeling a now-familiar twist of guilt over the part he'd played in the accident. "And yours?"
"Very well, thank you."
"I didn't expect you for another week."
She seemed to stiffen. "Is that a problem?"
"No, ma'am. You just surprised me is all." Wearing grime and coal dust and sweat wasn't the way he liked to greet a woman, even if she was his business partner. His gaze trailed over full breasts and a tiny waist.
Her voice turned cool, polite. "Everything I needed done in Mississippi was finished early so I decided to come on out."
She didn't meet his eyes and Russ suddenly felt a low-thrumming tension in her. Maybe she was nervous due to being in an unfamiliar place. Or maybe she was wound up like this all the time.
Her gaze dropped to the grate at his feet. "Is that the steam heat?"
He nodded. Tugging off a black kid glove, she moved past him and knelt, stretching out her hand as he had. A smile spread across her beautiful face. "It works!"
"I had to fiddle with it a bit."
"And the gaslights?" She rose, giving her skirts a shake. Red dust floated to the floor.
"They're working, too. Just haven't turned them on yet for tonight." He started for the sconce on the wall behind her. "But I can."
"That's all right. I'd like to bring in my trunks first."
"Oh, you can't stay here." Which suited Russ just fine. He'd felt this kind of mind-addling attraction before and that had been a disaster. He had no intention of giving in to it again. "The hotel isn't finished."
"Well, foot." Disappointment settled over her features. And fatigue, Russ realized by the shadows under her eyes.
Glancing around the large room, she tugged on her right earlobe. "How long do you think it'll be before I can move in?"
"At least a week."
"A week! I guess I am early," she murmured.
"The window glass for the third floor hasn't come in yet. Neither has the furniture for your rooms."
She sighed, turning slightly to look out the open doorway flooded with fiery gold light.
"There's another hotel here in town where you can stay," Russ said. "Once you've settled in, I'll show you around The Fontaine."
Despite the eagerness on her face, she hesitated. She checked the small gold watch pinned to her bodice over her heart. "I think tomorrow might be a better time to look around. I'm awfully tired."
"Is morning all right or would you rather meet later?"
She looked startled. "Oh. You don't need to be here."
"I thought it would be good for us to go through the place together, make sure we're both pleased with things, see what else needs to be done."
She didn't protest, didn't even blink, but Russ sensed she didn't want him there when she toured the hotel. Hmm, why not? He gestured for her to precede him out the door.
"I wish you'd sent word you were coming early. I planned to fetch you from Abilene. You wouldn't have had to worry about your luggage or getting to Whirlwind."
"I didn't mind."
Because it went against his nature to let a woman fend for herself on travel arrangements and such, his words came out sharper than he intended. "I do."
Her gaze snapped to his, fire sparking in those black eyes. "What?"
"It's not a good idea for a woman to go about alone in these parts."
"Why ever not? Since our fathers are in frequent contact, Mr. Baldwin, I think I would've been warned if the area was unsafe. Besides," she huffed, "I didn't want to impose."
Russ managed to keep from raising an eyebrow. His first impressions about people—especially women—were usually dead-on and Miz Kent seemed like an imposin' kind of woman to him. Still, he didn't need to get off on the wrong foot with her.
He gentled his voice. "The outlaw problem we've had the last couple of years is pretty much taken care of, but you never know who might come upon you with less than honorable intentions. It's best not to travel alone."
"I'm not alone. My maid, Naomi, is with me." Lydia gestured toward the open hotel doors then patted the skirt of her tweed traveling suit. "And I have my derringer."
"I guess you know how to use that?"
"Wouldn't do much good to carry it otherwise, would it?" she asked sweetly. "Would you be so kind as to point me toward the other hotel?"
"The Whirlwind. It's just down there." He indicated the two-story frame building at the opposite end of Main Street, diagonal to The Fontaine. "I'll take you over then fetch your luggage while you're getting settled."
"Thank you." Her voice was calm and pleasant; still Russ felt a jitteriness in her.
Felt a little in himself, too. "Did you have a lot of business to wrap up in Mississippi?"
"A fair amount."
There was nothing wrong with her showing up early, but Russ had never known a woman who did. He couldn't duck the sense that there was a story there. And there it would probably stay. Men always complained that women were unable to keep secrets, but hard experience had taught him some women could hide anything and lie straight to your face while doing it.
Stuffing the rag into the back pocket of his denims, he followed Lydia outside and slowed at the sight of a woman standing next to a loaded buckboard. Slight with creamy chocolate skin, she was every bit as beautiful as Lydia. Her black hair was swept up tightly, but instead of looking severe, the hairstyle only drew attention to her luminous brown eyes and stunning bone structure.
Lydia Kent was beautiful. This woman was breathtaking, regal. Despite the fact that her refined features were pinched with uncertainty until Lydia hurried to her.
Russ stopped in front of the pair. "Ma'am."
Though she didn't meet his eyes, she said quietly, "Hello."
They sure knew how to grow 'em in Mississippi. He smiled, trying to relieve her obvious unease. "I'm Russ Baldwin. You can call me Russ."
Lydia shifted closer to her. "This is Naomi Jones."
"My pleasure, Miz Jones." He shook her hand.
"Pleased to meet you." Her shy smile came and went quickly.
His gaze took in the trunks piled precariously high in the back of the wagon. "Let me escort you ladies to The Whirlwind."
Russ offered an arm to each woman, and after Lydia nodded reassuringly, Naomi accepted it. He didn't miss her slight wince at the movement or her stiff posture. Most likely sore due to bouncing in the wagon from Abilene to here.
A look passed between the two women. A look Russ judged as reassuring and desperate at the same time. It made him wonder again why his business partner had arrived so early and without word.
It could have been because of some business with that lawsuit of hers. Whatever it was, Russ decided he didn't want to know. After working night and day for the last month on the hotel, he deserved a reward and had intended to make a trip to Abilene for a little mattress thrashin' with Willow or Sally.
But thanks to Lydia Kent's unexpected and early arrival, he wouldn't be seeing any fun on a mattress today.
Oh, foot, Lydia thought the next morning as she approached her business partner. Russ Baldwin was just as sinful-looking as she remembered. And seeing him again set off a flutter of awareness in her stomach. She didn't know why. He certainly wasn't the first handsome man she'd ever seen. But when she met him on The Fontaine's wide front porch and he lightly placed his hand in the small of her back to guide her inside, there was no denying that his touch caused the same startling response she'd felt when he'd shaken her hand. Unnerving. Vexing, really.
Upon meeting him last night, she'd been surprised at his massive size. And today, dressed as he was in a light gray shirt that emphasized shoulders as wide as a wagon brace and dark trousers that clung almost indecently to powerful thighs, she was reminded all over again.
"Miz Jones decided not to come?" His voice rumbled above her head.
Tamping down the ridiculous giddiness inside her, Lydia smiled politely. "She had some things she needed to do this morning."
Mainly rest. Because of Naomi's bruised ribs, their abrupt departure from Mississippi had been even harder on her than it had been on Lydia. It hadn't helped that they'd looked over their shoulder the entire way. Naomi, especially, was a mass of nerves and Lydia had insisted she recuperate today. Naomi was so much more than a maid. She had paid a high price for her friendship to Lydia and Lydia's sister, Isabel.
Lydia touched the gold watch pinned to her bodice. The timepiece and a pair of diamond earrings were all she had left of her sister now. She felt close to Isabel when she wore them.
Inside the hotel, Russ swept off his Stetson to reveal dark hair that was thick and damp. He was clean-shaven, and something about his strong jaw made her want to slide her fingers down his face and test its smoothness for herself. She had never experienced such a strong attraction to a man, not even her former fiancé, mealymouthed Wade Vance. Which made her decide she was delirious from travel and worry.