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Outside Indianapolis, Indiana Summer, 1871
Vapid, vacuous, verbose — a waste of ink.
Amalia Truitt threw her valise against the seat next to her as the words repeated in her brain. She kicked her legs up onto the brocade footrest she'd requested for her private train car. The complaint to her editor about her latest column shouldn't ruin her journey home, but worry wouldn't leave her be. Neither would her looming deadline nor the fear that the criticisms had merit.
Explaining how to dress, how to wear your hair, and how to polish yourself until your sheen was so bright it hid all your other flaws was her ... what did her mother say? Her forte. The one thing she was good at.
Was she losing her touch?
No. She couldn't be. She needed the money too much for that to happen.
Well, to be fair, she required more money than her beauty column for the Philadelphia Inquirer could provide. A lot more. Which is why she couldn't be in a tizzy when she reached Centerville and asked her parents for it. Then they'd never listen, never take her seriously. She had to be at her most calm and rational.
With a moan, she leaned back farther, rubbing against the magenta velvet, reveling in the soothing vibrations from the rumbling wheels below. Probably ruining her fresh ringlets.
But no one was going to see her hair today. She tossed her hat on the floor and closed her eyes. She'd order her favorite meal — with brandy, to quiet all the voices in her head.
Please, Amalia, no more trouble, no more legal fees, no more waste. You're an adult. Please act like one.
Amalia balled her fist at the memory. Her father, the once jovial parent, delivered the admonition after her last divorce. No condolences, no sympathy, not even a smidge of unsolicited advice — only resigned disappointment. And certainly no inquiry as to why she might have married again in the first place. Just an assumption that she'd been impulsive and empty-headed a second time. That she'd learned nothing.
Twenty-four, two months away from twenty-five years old, and all they saw was two-time failure. Her parents probably wanted her to become a nun. Or at least find a Jewish version of a convent. As if she'd wear anything black and shapeless. She straightened the two-tone sapphire brooch at her collar.
Conquering hero — that was who she was. She'd show them all the competent woman she'd become, demand her due: access to the family fortune like her siblings. And her parents would acquiesce. Her purpose, the charitable trust she'd worked so hard to create and keep solvent these last few years wouldn't die. They'd not refuse her. She'd approach them right after the bris for her new nephew. They'd be in a good mood and say "yes." No need to worry.
Amalia's stomach rumbled. With hunger, not fear. She really should call the porter.
Before she could fully rise, a rapping rattled the entry.
Still rubbing her aching neck, she swept aside the sliding door and gaped as a familiar form pushed inside the car. Her car. Amalia swayed on her feet and had to clutch at the wall to keep upright.
Even after six years, she'd recognize her brothers' friend from V Corps anywhere. Though his bearing was somehow more American, David Zisskind's flashing coal eyes and tousled ebony hair hadn't changed a lick. All the memories roared back — every kiss, every touch — but most vividly her father's admonition when he caught her sneaking back to her room after a midnight rendezvous.
I'm not an idiot. I know where you were and who you were with. Not smart, Amalia. We know nothing about him and you're too young. Behave. Your mother has enough to worry about.
Not to mention all the mistakes she'd made afterwards. A drumming started in her brain, so loud she almost threw her hands over her ears.
"What are you doing here?" She managed the question as she blinked, her mind working to reconcile the man before her with the teenage boy he'd been. The heel of her over-polished white boots caught on the runner near the door. Amalia scrambled for purchase, but to no avail. Her legs slid from under her.
In a flash, David's arms shot out and grabbed her elbows. Warmth zinged down her spine as her back hit his rather solid chest. "Protecting you. From yourself, apparently, as well as outside threats." The words vibrated into her body from his.
"Outside threats?" With a jolt, Amalia rocked away from David. "Has something happened? Is my mother all right?" A million fears sparked. Though both her parents used their combined fortune to champion causes, her Jewish banking heiress mother bore the brunt of the public consternation. Before the war, the anti-abolitionists threatened to tar and feather her if she ventured south of New Castle County and after, in Europe, well, over there the caricatures were a million times worse than in America.
"Your parents are fine. This is about you, not them." Though he hadn't completely lost his accent, David's voice was louder and his manner much steadier than the last time they'd spoken. The knot in her chest loosened, but she still couldn't quite find her voice.
"Were you expecting someone?" He brushed past her and peered around the room, searching. He narrowed his eyes behind his spectacles.
"No. Well, maybe? I mean, I'm a frequent enough traveler that the staff anticipates my needs. I was hungry, so I thought perhaps someone was already bringing me something to eat." She squeaked the words before winding a still bouncing ringlet around her fingers. Why hadn't he answered the "threats" question? "You should check before you answer the door." David lifted her bag and opened it, poking his fingers about.
She marched over and snatched the case back. "I have my own car and select staff. They don't permit just anyone back here." She clutched the leather to her chest as tight as she could. He'd have to pry it from her now. "And you've still explained nothing. You cannot poke through my private necessaries with only a vague reference to 'threats.'"
"Why don't we settle down and talk about this rationally." David stepped forward, his legs shoulder-length apart, his hands on either side of his belt buckle. A mistake. If he used the word "hysterical," she'd sock him, or better, knee him.
He held up his palm and his lips softened into an almost sheepish expression. "Sorry, that was a bit ..." He ran a hand through his thick, slightly overgrown hair. "Let's just do this without hostility. We're hardly strangers. We were once friends, used to enjoy each other's company. I actually credit you a little for my improved English."
"Do you?" She whipped around as the ghosts of the past swirled — all the lost innocence, the war that changed them, and the stolen kisses meant to stave off the sadness. Her rib cage strained against her corset.
Ha. Her friendships didn't come with physical benefits. What they'd engaged in was a temporary liaison based on mutual need for release. He'd made that quite clear once upon a time.
Amalia flipped her hair over her shoulder. "Our indecorous dalliance was years ago. We're strangers, in many ways, and this is my train car, so I think I'm entitled to some answers before you ... do whatever you're doing. You owe me the full story, including how in the world you managed to get back here."
A shadow cast over David's features. He raised a finger, but dropped it and muttered a few unintelligible, angry words before glancing back, his face once again neutral.
"I told the line the truth. The Pinkerton Agency's name carries weight." He pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose with an arrogant quirk of his lips. "Your brother dismissed the staff and instead hired my team to protect you. Thad would've come himself, but he's occupied with the new baby."
Amalia's mind stuttered and churned. A Pinkerton? A radical, anti-tradition, anti-marriage rag peddler turned soldier turned ... detective?
"I'm protecting you from this person." David dropped his voice a little and leaned closer, as if shielding her from ... something. He pulled a paper from his pocket and slid it into Amalia's hands. She studied the familiar words, ones she'd read and managed to ignore. It was part of a series mailed to her lawyer's office — her charity's office — in Indianapolis.
Jezebel. You should be taken out and stoned. Judgment is coming for you and your wicked ways.
An apricot-sized lump cut off her air and tears of frustration prickled the back of Amalia's eyes. Why was her brother doing this to her? He could have sent a dozen different former soldiers he served with, but he had to pick David Zisskind? Absolute humiliation on all fronts.
Clutching the paper so tight it crumpled, she sank into her armchair once more and tossed the offensive page on a table. She needed a drink. Posthaste.
"I know this wasn't the first. Or the last." David's voice was gentle, but he wrinkled his nose as if he caught a whiff of something foul. As if he could detect the truth of the words by scent or had already judged them meritorious. When she caught his eye, he glanced away and he dropped to his knee so he could lift the gold-fringed skirt of the table.
"True. I found this one better, at least more topical, than the 'sneaky, underhanded, meddlesome Jew' ones. But if you get someone mad enough, it always devolves into that." Amalia crossed her ankles hard enough that her boot near tore. And many of her relatives had received worse, yet no one hired minders for them. The pressure inside her head grew fierce. David continued his search, in silence.
"Are you married?" The question — apropos of nothing — popped out of Amalia's mouth of its own accord, leaving her to gape like a flounder ready to be stuffed in its wake. Probably not the most flattering facial expression.
"What?" David shot up so fast he nicked his head. He rubbed the spot, his full lips a stern pout. "I —" He blinked a few times before leaning against the edge of an armchair. "No, I'm not married. Never have been. I don't believe in it, remember? Even if I did, there's too much work that needs to be done in the world. I certainly couldn't concern myself with such things, especially as I'm up for a promotion now. I'll be head of the Philadelphia office."
Amalia's cheeks heated as she sank back against the velour cushioning. Score one for him — two actually, quite the impressive backhanded self-adulation. Had he always been this self-important? And since when did titles matter to him? Weren't they inherently "unequal"? Or did he no longer care about the ideals that once made him so passionate?
"You should be pleased. You're in good hands." David stood again, those same hands in his pockets, his head cocked to the side with an abashed smile playing on his lips. "You'll be safe. And I promise, you won't even know we're here."
She returned his expression with her own tightlipped grimace. An uninvited guest intruding on her solitude. The last thing she needed. Amalia smoothed her taffeta skirts and frowned. We?" What do you mean by 'we'? I only see you."
"My team." David strolled to the door and peeked outside before closing it again. "There are just three of us here. I'm leader for this mission."
Congratulations to him. Amalia rolled her eyes. How wonderful that her putting up with strangers — plural — would yield him such a prize. She tugged at the fingers of her gloves. No. She wasn't anxious. She was calm and ready to face her parents and save her charity. No matter what.
With another flip of her hair, she turned back to him. "Is this really necessary? I mean it's only words. And delivered to one of my lawyers' offices. In Indiana."
"Still addressed to you, specifically." A steeliness enveloped David's tone, so different than the bookish, philosophical boy he once was, that she sat a bit straighter despite herself.
Fiddlesticks. Amalia twisted her brooch. The letters couldn't mean actual danger. Still, a chill ran down her neck, making the hairs beneath her collar prickle. "We aren't leaving until you're safe in Centerville.
There's a whole other team scouring Indianapolis, searching for the sender. They'll keep me apprised and once he's apprehended you'll never hear from us again." David knit his hands, his eyes somber, churning the echoes of their shared past once more. He glanced into the hall. "My partners should be finished their sweep soon and we can all settle in for the night."
The night? A pounding drummed in Amalia's skull. "You're all sleeping here?"
"I'd be pretty poor protection if I left you for several hours each day." A smirk crossed David's face and his eyes lit with that hint of shy mischief that used to make her body quiver, but did nothing of the sort anymore. Not a mite.
The arrangement was improper. She did not need a nanny. Especially one she'd kissed — well, more than kissed — before ending the relationship with a lie. Or two. And a few well-designed verbal stabs, which he'd certainly forgotten. Amalia clutched at her own hands. Nope, no guilt. Not a smidge. No lingering hurt on her part either. Because she'd found a new purpose and Mr. I'm-up-for-a-Promotion was clearly doing just fine himself.
"I have work to do." She toyed with a curl. A decent point if she didn't say so herself. Deadline. Less than a week away and she didn't even have a concept for her column. And focusing would be a great deal easier without any ill-advised affair haunting her. In the flesh.
David gestured to the expansive area. "You have multiple rooms — full servants' quarters and a sitting area. I don't believe you need that much privacy. A closed door should suffice. It'll only be for a few days. Besides, if you refuse, I'll tell your brother."
Who'd tell her parents, who'd see it as a sign of immaturity and use it as an excuse to deny her request. She was stuck.
With a huff, Amalia slouched into the chair. Not the most auspicious start to her journey, but she'd get her mental fortitude back. After all, a great many people depended on her. She might be "vapid, vacuous, and verbose," but she was loyal and a survivor too. She'd deliver. No matter what. David Zisskind was just a small delay on the tracks.
The ratta-tat-tat of the wheels blocked out the sounds of David's rumbling stomach, but not Amalia's rather dramatic flop into the chair next to the window. She gave him her entire stiff-set back, as if she was the one who had any right to be angry. As if she wasn't the one who turned up her nose at him all those years ago. Snubbed him, after talking his ear off for multiple meals, all the while caressing his fingers under the table. Not to mention the kisses. And strokes. And other touches. And the boundary-pushing, salacious letters. Not that it mattered — he'd made an error, that's all. Thought she had a different role in his story.
Thought she was different. His mistake.
David stomped over to the seat across from her and sat, elbows on his knees, his spectacles slipping a bit down his nose. Not staring at her.
Fine, staring at her. Because even though he should know better than to be bamboozled by her charms, the woman was a distraction.
Amalia Truitt was beautiful. All shiny cinnamon-colored hair and flushed cheeks and the plumpest scarlet lips ever created. No photograph she'd sent him ever did her justice.
A prickly heat washed over him. He was shmendrek — an idiot. A hapless idiot. An idiot who should've known better then, and needed to be reminded of it now. No dalliances, no Amalia, no anything but work.
Except, just when his goals were finally in sight, she was back, jeopardizing his destiny. He was supposed to be like Joseph, the star of his favorite story as a boy. The man who traveled to a strange land to become an advisor to the king, and saved his people. The promotion could provide that opportunity.
If Amalia didn't ruin it somehow. The way she ruined what little bit of hope he once had of a normal life.
Ah well. Normal lives were for the boring.
"You really don't need to be here." She stared out the window, nose near touching the glass, her hair obscuring her high lace collar.
He mumbled something that resembled, "It's my job," even as his mind traveled everywhere but the professional place it needed to be.
I loathe everything my mother's relatives buy me. How is one supposed to leave a trail of perfume down one's neck for a man to kiss, if it's covered?
Oy. Why did she have to be so descriptive in the damned letters? Potiphar's wife had nothing on her. He needed to picture Thad and the shade of purple his face turned at the idea anyone dared to disparage, let alone threaten his precious baby sister. He owed the man for, well, everything. Leering at Amalia, instead of being on high alert, was no way to repay that debt.
Not to mention her other brother.
David gripped his wrist and squeezed, the bone digging into the crook between his thumb and fingers as he willed those memories back. That day in July. The smoke and the gunfire and the screams and the shallow grave in the woods.
Excerpted from "Dalliances & Devotion"
Copyright © 2019 Hannah Singerman.
Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
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