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The most memorable event in Vonnie Taylor's life took place in rural Amarillo in the late summer of '98 when Adam Baldwin predictably announced his engagement to Beth Baylor.
"I do declare that Adam Baldwin is the best-looking man in Potter County." Hildy Mae Addison's eyes were riveted to the gorgeous sight. "Just looking at him makes my heart flutter like a butterfly's wings!"
"Hildy Mae!" Mora Dawson slapped a hand across her mouth. "You should be ashamed of yourself."
"For what?" The young woman giggled. "I know a good-looking man when I see one."
"Very good looks," Carolyn Henderson concluded.
Vonnie edged away, eyeing the tray of cherry tarts, attempting a show of enthusiasm she didn't feel. "My, doesn't the pastry look wonderful?"
Mora sighed. "I wonder if Beth knows how lucky she is."
Carolyn nodded. "She knows. And even if she didn't, she'd say she did."
Giggles broke out. Beth was known to go to any lengths to keep peace. At times she could be insanely agreeable. Yet, everyone knew the Baldwin/Baylor marriage was arranged by the senior Baldwin. Remember that, Vonnie. Arranged
but Adam had consented.
"Ladies," Vonnie cautioned. "Beth is a lovely person."
The murmurs readily concurred that Beth was the nicest person anyone could hope to meet. And the luckiest. When the eldest Baldwin son's engagement to Beth Baylor was announced, the town's eligible female population had groaned with envy.
Vonnie casually bit into flaky crust, feigning indifference to the conversation though her insides churned like a waterwheel. And now, the nicest person in Potter County would marry the best-looking man in Texas.
How utterly ideal.
The girls nodded when Janie Bennett and her fiancé, Edward Lassitor, strolled by.
"Evening, Jane, Edward."
"Evening, Hildy." Jane flashed friendly smiles at the women. "Mora, Carolyn, Vonnie."
Simultaneous pleasantries prevailed.
"Janie's so nice," Carolyn said as the couple walked on. "I can scarcely wait to see her gown. Vonnie, you can't keep us in suspense any longer! What's it like?"
"Ah, but you'll have to wait until the wedding." Vonnie tried for a teasing tone, doing her best not to allow her true feelings to show. Beth might be the nicest girl in the county, but few wouldn't agree that Vonnie Taylor was the prettiest. Coal-black hair, amethyst-colored eyes, dimples men found irresistible. Half Cherokee, half white. Yet no one ever spoke of Vonnie's mixed heritage. Not even P.K. Baldwin.
"You're not serious! You're honestly going to make us wait until the wedding?" Mora and Carolyn chorused.
Hildy's generous lips formed a pout. "You're cruel!"
Her words held no malice. Vonnie knew she wasn't just pretty fluff. Brides came from as far away as the West Coast to purchase one of her exquisite gowns. At the tender age of twelve, she had shown an astonishing ability with needle and thread. By fifteen, anyone who saw her work marveled that she was so gifted. She could craft a simple piece of lace into a work of art.
"I'll bet the gown's frighteningly expensive," Mora guessed.
Carolyn sniffed. "Edward can afford it."
"Edward won't be paying for it. Tool Bennett is paying for everything," Mora confided in a hushed whisper.
"I overheard Mrs. Bennett telling Martha Gibbings at the church social last week. The wedding is costing a fortune, but Tool won't hear of anything less than the very best for his only daughter."
"Oh dear," Hildy's voice dipped to a reverent whisper. "Will you look at those eyes? Have you ever seen such a deep blue! There's not a man here who could hold a candle to him." To Vonnie's consternation Adam Baldwin was once again the focus of attention.
"He's so handsome he makes my teeth ache," Hildy confessed. "And he's engaged." She brightened. "To our Beththough I'm absolutely blue with envy."
Vonnie had to agree she was blue, emotionally. Adam, in dark gray trousers, frock coat and burgundy vest, was the best-looking mannot just in Potter County, but the world. But then she was partial to this particular Baldwin. Painfully so.
She picked up a silver tray of bizcotela and brightly offered it around. "Cookies, anyone?"
"I've heard he's quite the gentleman," Carolyn said as she thoughtfully selected a sweet. "Beth said he hung wash for her when she was feeling poorly last week."
"He did! Beth said so herself." Carolyn bent closer. "But she made me promise absolute secrecy, so don't breathe a word of it to anyone."
Three heads bobbed. Three pair of covetous eyes returned to Adam's sculpted features. He was deep in conversation with the governor.
"I tell you, son," the governor blustered, "the railroad coming in is the best thing that's ever happened to us!"
"Oh," Hildy murmured. "He sees us." She flashed a grin. "Personally? I'd take any one of the Baldwin brothers."
Carolyn giggled. "To where, darlin'?"
"Who cares?" Mora and Carolyn parroted in unison. Vonnie shook her head.
The four men bore a striking resemblance; it was impossible to say who was the most attractive. They had dark brown, wavy hair, the irresistible Baldwin sky-blue eyes, and skin tanned to nut brown by the hot Texas sun.
Adam, Andrew, Joey, Pat. The brothers were the cr me de la cr me of Potter County, easily at home in buckskin or expensive Boston tweed.
"Why, Carolyn, what would James say if he heard you drooling over the Baldwin brothers?" Hildy chided.
Carolyn's cheeks pinked and she daintily lifted her cup to her mouth. "James and I are only friends."
"Of course, you are." Vonnie finally entered the good-natured conversation, encouraged by the change in subject.
Hildy suddenly froze, her mouth formed around a cookie. "He's walking this way."
The women's eyes focused on Adam effortlessly weaving his way across the crowded room. His gaze lightly skimmed Vonnie as he approached the four women. "Ladies?"
Carolyn blushed cherry-red. "Mr. Baldwin."
He cocked his head. "Something wrong?"
"Oh, my stars, no," Hildy said. She glanced at Vonnie.
"No?" He smiled, showing even, white teeth beneath a dark tan. "Then I trust you're having a good time?"
"Oh, wonderful," Hildy said.
"Everything's so nice," Carolyn murmured.
"The food's delicious," Mora assured him.
He nodded. "I'm glad you're enjoying yourselves." His eyes returned to Vonnie. Offering his left arm, he smiled. "Would you do me the honor of having a glass of punch?"
Vonnie's breath caught when his eyes skimmed her with easy familiarity. She swallowed. "Of course."
Mora, Hildy and Carolyn stood aside as Adam escorted her to the refreshment center.
Sipping from a cup, Vonnie met Adam's eyes in silent challenge. Eyes the color of a Montana sky stared into hers. Indeed, Adam Baldwin could make a woman's head spin.
"You look lovely tonight."
"Thank you. We were commenting that Beth is positively radiant."
His eyes flicked briefly to his fiancée, who was chatting with Carolyn's father, the honorable Judge Clive Henderson. "Beth is a beautiful woman."
His voice set off the same familiar rush of emotion deep inside Vonnie. The resonant baritone left her feeling slightly giddy. Seven years had failed to change anything.
"You're very fortunate. Beth will make a wonderful mate."
"Yes, so I'm told."
"Have you set a date?"
The woodsy spice of his cologne circled her. Beneath crystal chandeliers, where dappled prisms of light swirled among the smiling couples, she'd never felt more miserable.
Discreetly stepping closer, Adam whispered softly against her ear. "Why are you here?"
"You need to ask?"
Faking a blissful smile, Vonnie gripped the cup tightly. Her dress of yellow silk trimmed with black lace ruffles whispered delicately against the coarse fabric of his dark gray trousers.
His voice held a slight edge now. "Do you plan to make a scene?"
She peered up at him, her eyes wide as if the mere thought of making a scene was scandalous. "Me? Heavens, no. Why would I make a scene?"
"Strong hunch," he said, tight-lipped.
"I wouldn't miss this for the world. We're a close-knit community. If any member of the church failed to show up at an event of this magnitude, the neighbors would talk."
A muscle tightened in his jaw.
She smiled, skimming the room.
"My mother seems to be enjoying herself. She's eaten at least six petits fours." Vonnie focused on the fragile-looking woman sitting inside the veranda doorway. Cammy Taylor, a quiet, unassuming lady, sipped punch, giving polite interest to Vera Clark's endless chatter. Vera appeared to take Cammy's nodding courtesy for rapt attention, but Vonnie knew better. Her mother wasn't interested in Vera's gout. She came tonight to spite P.K. Baldwin.
Adam's warm breath fanned her ear, and for a giddy moment the room tilted. "I notice your father isn't worried about proprieties."
"Father?" She laughed. "A team of wild horses couldn't have brought him here."
Coolness shadowed Adam's eyes.
She tilted a violet glance up at him and clarified, though it wasn't necessary. "I believe his exact words were, 'I'd sooner be in a room of rattlers.'"
Chiseled lips parted to reveal a row of perfectly matched teeth as he accepted the lethal thrust. "You'll be sure to give Teague my best."
"He'll be thrilled."
Lifting a dark brow, Adam appeared to be waiting for the other shoe to drop. When she didn't respond, he said quietly, "There's bound to be more you have to say."
"Yes. I hope you both will be very happy."
She set the cup aside and quickly walked away. Ignoring the shocked expressions on her friends' faces, Vonnie swept by them and disappeared onto the veranda. Adam covered the awkward moment by casually threading his way through the crowd, following her.
Acknowledging the various greetings, he trailed close on Vonnie's heels, pulling the veranda double doors closed behind him for privacy.
"All right," he accused. "Say what you came here to say."
"You really want to hear it?"
"Vonnie, don't make a scene," he warned.
Whirling, her eyes locked with his in a spirited challenge. "Over you? Don't make me laugh."
"What are you really doing here tonight?"
Her brow lifted with mockery. "Who would have a better reason to be here?"
"You're going to be difficult about this, aren't you? I hope we can handle this in a civil manner."
She wrapped her arms around her waist and stepped to a low wall covered in dying bougainvillea. "I'm not sure I can be civil."
Propping a boot on the flowered garden ledge, he stood silent. Finally he said, "You're looking good."
Moving another step away, she surveyed the brilliant sky. The stars looked so close she was sure she could reach up and touch them. She could remember only one other night when they'd been so bright, so perfect.
"You're not obligated to say that."
He looked away impatiently. "I wasn't saying it because I thought I had to say it."
"Then, thank you." Her voice was even more unsteady than she'd feared.
Silence stretched between them.
"Why did you come?" he repeated. Grasping her by the shoulders, he shook her gently. "What did you expect?"
What did she expect? Resentment flooded her. What did she expect? Tears burned her eyes and she blinked.
Turning away, he said, "Stop looking at me that way."
She closed her eyes to keep from seeing him at all.
His voice held quiet desperation now. "I don't know what you expected." He struggled for the right words. "You didn't think it would just go away, did you?"
"I don't know what I thought, but I didn't expect you to marry Beth." She heard the hurt in her voice.
For the briefest of moments she thought she saw compassion in his eyes. But then it was gone. She steeled herself against the feelings roiling inside. "Congratulations. With the Baylors' land and your family's wealth, the Baldwins will control a sizable chunk of Potter County."
"I'm not marrying Beth to spite you."
"Then why are you marrying her?" Vonnie held her breath as she waited for the answer. If you say you love her, I'll die.
"You know why I'm marrying her." He refused to meet her eyes.
She averted her gaze. Yes, she knewhis father had arranged the union. P.K. had always wanted the Baylor land.
Lord, how can I bear this? I love him beyond words. How can I let him go to another womaneven to Beth, who would make him a devotedwife? Calm me, Lord, help me be strong, and help me veil how this is tearing me apart.
This time he was the one who looked away. "What does love have to do with it?"