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Whiskey River, Spring, 1894
Setting the bag of coffee and sack of sugar on the counter of Kelly’s Mercantile, Marguerite McMasters walked over to the rack displaying bolts of fabric, buttons and trimming. A card of vivid red velvet ribbon caught her eye and she picked it up, rubbing her thumb against the soft plush.
It had been more than a year since Aidan’s death. She wouldn’t raise any eyebrows if she put away mourning and made herself a new gown from a brighter fabric that would flatter her dark hair and eyes—maybe trimmed with this cheery bit of velvet. Sighing, she smoothed the skirt of her stiff, black cambric gown.
A new dress might not raise eyebrows, but this one was still serviceable, and with the pittance she was paid to teach at the town’s primary school, she needed to conserve every penny. Her chest tightened with the familiar mix of grief, anxiety, loneliness and determination—salted, she admitted, with a dash of irrational anger at Aidan for dying and leaving her bereft.
Brooding over the husband she still missed so bitterly, she heard a deep, seductive voice with an Irish lilt that sent shivers of remembered pleasure over her skin. Until she suddenly realized it wasn’t memory’s echo of Aidan’s voice captivating her, but a real voice, here in the mercantile.
She looked over her shoulder at the profile of the tall, dark-haired man whose voice had penetrated her thoughts. Since he spent most of his time traveling, she’d not before encountered him, but the man standing with such easy grace, talking with a customer at the other side of the mercantile, could only be its owner, Ronan “Booze” Kelly.
Though she’d never met him, like every member of the small community, she knew all about him. Son of wealthy Irish traders in Galveston, he’d been too restless to go into the family business, setting off instead to carry wares to the wilderness settlements made accessible by the expanding railroad network. Discovering he could buy nothing to drink when he stopped in what was then a tiny trading post at the crossroads of two major trails, he decided to import beer and whiskey. Within a few years, he’d not only built up a lucrative liquor trade, he’d bought the trading post, constructed a hotel, financed a church, a school and a bank, and turned the settlement into a thriving metropolis.
He looked younger than she would have expected for a man who’d accomplished so much, his face unlined, no trace of silver in his hair. As he turned slightly, giving her a full-face view, she caught her breath at the sheer masculine power he radiated.
Black hair, so thick and silky she imagined running her fingers through it, curled over his forehead, shadowing a purposeful nose, high cheekbones and a chin that jutted commandingly.
Then their gazes met. A rush of excitement hit her in the pit of her stomach as his intense blue eyes—vivid as the blue edge of a lightning flash—focused on her.
His sensual lips curved into a smile, his gaze deepening into something smoky and inviting, and her mouth dried. She’d heard that smile could charm the drawers off any woman he wanted, and she could well believe it, as something needy, aching and long-denied stirred in her loins.
But a respectable schoolmarm couldn’t afford to risk an affair, she rebuked herself, no matter how much she missed the feel of a man’s embrace—or how mesmerizing the gentleman. She’d better look away from Mr. “Lure-You-Into-His-Bed” Kelly before he got the idea she was encouraging him.
Feeling her cheeks flush, she realized he’d indeed taken a step in her direction. Embarrassed that he might think she’d been trying to entice him, she broke eye contact and sidled backwards, slipping behind a tall cabinet filled with preserves.
Her chagrin increased as she heard his soft laugh—doubtless at her craven retreat. Her cheeks flamed hotter still when she peeked around the cabinet to see his customer, holding up a dress for inspection—and recognized her as the madame of the local fancy house, Evangeline’s Angels.
“Miss Evangeline, it’s mighty becoming you’ll be looking in that gown,” Kelly was saying. His tone dropping to a murmur, he added, “And even more becoming out of it.”
“Booze Kelly, you naughty boy,” the statuesque blond said with a throaty chuckle, giving Kelly’s cheek a playful slap—before drawing her fingertips slowly down his arm. “Why don’t you stop by and find out?”
“You’d tempt an altar boy, Miss E,” Kelly replied, catching the hand and pressing it to his lips.
The madam smiled. “Which we both know you’re not, Mr. Kelly!”
“I’ve a new shipment of bonnets just in. Why don’t you have a look, find one to complement the gown?”
Sliding more deeply into her hiding spot, Marguerite heard footsteps as Kelly led his customer off. The wretch, she thought, disgruntled. He could probably sell water to a drowning man.
She tried to put out of her head the image of the stroking fingers…moving not along the sleeve of a suit, but up a bare arm, onto that strong shoulder, down over that muscled chest. His legs would be strong and muscled, too, from hours in the saddle.
She shook her head, trying to drag her thoughts in a more proper direction. She was a resourceful, intelligent woman, she reminded herself. If her resolve to remain independent was a bit weaker, it was only because today marked the thirteen-month anniversary of Aidan’s death. She needed to put aside carnal ideas and concentrate on her only goal: earning enough to pay her bill at the boarding house and the loan on the ranch, so she might one day realize their dream of running a horse breeding operation.
After defying her Tejano family in San Antonio to run off with a sweet-talking Irishman, if that venture failed, she had nowhere else to go.
In this small Texas town, there were only two ways a woman could earn a living wage—teaching school, or whoring at Miss Evangeline’s. The latter probably paid more, Marguerite thought with a sigh, but if she wanted to hold on to her job as the former, her behavior had to remain above reproach.
A prickling awareness brought her out of her reverie as she heard the mercantile’s front door close—and footsteps walking in her direction. She gave a panicked glance around her, but with nothing but shelving around her and the exit behind the approaching owner, there was no way to avoid him.
Kelly rounded the corner of the cabinet and halted a respectable distance away—but still close enough that she felt the potent attraction that seemed to emanate from him in waves. The tang of man, aftershave and a hint of cigar teased her nose. While she stood motionless, like a mouse who’s sighted an owl, she felt his gaze rove lazily over her, provoking a flush of heat everywhere it touched. As if she stood before him not in her demure widow’s weeds, but in only her chemise and stays…or nothing at all. Her gaze caught by his when his eyes returned to her face, her dazed mind thought only that he was even more handsome up close.
His lips quirked into a smile. Her gaze locked on his mouth, she wondered whether those lips would be gentle, pressed against hers, or hard and possessive.
“That’s pretty ribbon, ma’am. Can I help you with a gown to match it?”
Startled, she realized she still held the card of ribbon. Trying to order the thoughts he seemed so easily able to muddle, she shook her head. “N-no, thank you, sir, I…”
He made her a graceful bow. “Ronan Kelly, ma’am, owner of this establishment. We aim to satisfy our customers…and satisfying you would be entirely my pleasure.”
Oh, she believed him. When, compelled despite herself, she looked back up into those blue, blue eyes, heat like the Texas hills in August flashed between them.
Self-preservation wrestling with lust, Marguerite knew she needed to get away before her erratic senses led her into saying something even more foolish. Furious with herself for appearing like a dithering half-wit—and at him for reducing her to that state, she snapped, “No, I don’t need anything.”
Thrusting the card of ribbon into his hands and abandoning the supplies she’d left on the counter, she skirted around Kelly and hurried out the door.
Smiling, Booze watched the dark-haired Spanish beauty rush out of the store, admiring the way the plain black gown hugged her tiny waist—as it had molded over a very attractive bosom. She was clearly in mourning—but for whom?
If a husband, he thought, the smile deepening as his loins tightened, he might be just the man to offer her comfort. Recalling the fierce attraction that had flashed between them, despite her retreat, he figured she just might well be willing to accept it.
Depending on just how proper a lady she was. How much simpler it would be if she were one of Miss Evangeline’s girls! No proprieties to observe, just an easy and mutual giving of pleasure.
And what a pleasure it would be. He could get enthused about the prospect of easing that delightfully rounded body out of the tight bodice and skirt, unplaiting the lustrous black hair and running his fingers through the ripples until it spread out in a silky curtain over her bare back, the only garment she needed. He imagined filling his hands with those soft breasts while he kissed the full lips, long and slow and deep, those sultry dark eyes drifting closed as he pleasured her…
“Trying to charm our newest schoolmarm?”
The coy feminine voice jolted him out of his lecherous thoughts even as the identity of the speaker cooled his warm mood like snow melt in a spring river. Forcing himself to smile, he focused on the newcomer.
“Good day, Mrs. McCleary. Sorry, I didn’t hear the entry bell. How might I help you?”
“Now, Ronan, I appreciate you being cautious, but with just the two of us here, you can call me Lydia. It hasn’t been that many years since you courted me in Galveston.”
Booze pressed his lips together to keep from correcting her. He might have met her at the ball his family dragged him to during one of his visits back to Galveston, but he’d never courted her. However, as the most beautiful and sought-after belle in the city, she took masculine admiration as her due—and the need for it seemed to have intensified after she married and was dragged from that bustling city to the settlement she’d frequently described as a boring backwater.
“In Galveston, I was just one in an adoring crowd of suitors,” he said with practiced ease. “I doubt you even noticed me.”
Her gaze swept over him with an intensity that was definitely not neighborly. “No woman could fail to notice you, Ronan Kelly.”
“Ah, but it was Michael who won your hand—lucky devil. So, what was it you were wanting today?” Besides another man’s attention and compliments.
She looked around restlessly. “Oh, just to see what is new. When I spotted you by the window, I had to come in! You’re so seldom at the store.”
“I can’t find bonnets and gowns lovely enough to entice the ladies if I’m not on the road, searching out new stock. Jesse tends the place well enough when I’m gone.”
“Well enough. But no one could…tend a lady better than you.” Giving him a flirtatious look from under her long lashes, she took a step closer, wafting toward him the scent of expensive French perfume and giving him a better view of her impressively rounded bodice.
With his reputation, Ronan often received invitations—some more subtle than others—from interested ladies. Normally, he was happy to accommodate the desire of a lusty matron for a quick interlude with no strings attached, especially one as admittedly beautiful as Lydia McCleary. But not when the woman’s husband was the town banker, one of his chief investors, and the closest thing he had to a best friend.
Despite his several rebuffs, the beauteous but not very astute Mrs. McCleary didn’t seem to grasp that subtle sense of honor. Even if she hadn’t wed Michael, the comments his friend occasionally made about the bride he’d won from a host of competing suitors would have made him wary of her. It seemed she thought herself a princess deserving of every trinket that caught her eye, and the slavish admiration of every man she met. Even now that I’ve married her, had been left unspoken.
“Tending things well is the only way to keep my customers happy. Speaking of which, I’ve just brought back a new shipment of French bonnets. There might be just the thing to set off those lovely blonde curls.”
“Really, Ronan, we buy our household necessaries here, but surely you don’t think you can tempt me to purchase any clothing.” She trilled a laugh. “I’m not dull Mrs. Allen or the parson’s timid wife. My gowns come straight from Worth in Paris, as they always have. Not that you’ll be selling anything to that little schoolteacher, either, so you may as well not bother turning your charm on her.”
“No? She seemed quite interested in some fabric and red ribbon.”
Lydia sniffed. “She might look, but she won’t buy. Mrs. McMasters took a job teaching at the school you and Michael funded after her husband was killed in the storm last spring.”
Ronan frowned. “Yes, I remember now. He and his convoy of provisions were swept away when the river flooded. A terrible tragedy.”
“Yes, they say the flood was even worse than the one that destroyed the bridge two years ago—washing away those wagonloads of whiskey.” She gave him an arch look. “You must have been mightily annoyed when the folks hereabouts started calling the town ‘Whiskey River’ instead of ‘Kelly’s Crossing’.”
“Not a bit. I was much more unhappy at losing forty barrels of my best Irish.”
“I think her husband’s death must have disordered her mind. He borrowed money to buy a ranch, somewhere out along the river. Now that he’s gone, the silly creature asked for the teaching job so she could stay here and keep paying on the loan. As if a female could run a ranch on her own, even if she does manage to make the payments!” Lydia shook her head. “She would be wiser to give it up and move back south to her family.”
“And let it go back to the bank by default?” Booze asked, frowning. “Can’t say I blame her, not wanting to do that. Besides, I’ve been looking at land myself, and those stretches along the river are beautiful.”
“It’s just a pokey little river—and to go outside of town, too! Goodness, isn’t Whiskey River isolated enough?”
“Too isolated for some,” he said, trying hard to manufacture a sympathy he couldn’t feel. Not isolated enough for him, though, which was why he was looking at land. Now that the population numbered in the hundreds, he was starting to feel closed in when he stayed in town.
He always started feeling restless when someone or something tried to box him in. His family, wanting him to manage the business in Galveston. A pretty lover with marriage on her mind. Or a demanding beauty who seemed to think every man in Texas was created to do her bidding.
With a little pout on her lips, probably because he’d been inattentive, Lydia tapped him on the arm. “Why don’t you walk me to the bank? I’m sure you must have something to discuss with Michael.”
The hemmed-in feeling intensified, and suddenly the confines of the store and the town seemed stifling. He’d ride out by the river, he decided.
“Delightful as it would be to stroll to the bank with the prettiest woman in Texas, unfortunately, I have a business appointment. Sorry I don’t have any treasures to tempt you, and do give my best to Michael.”
She stared at him for a moment, as if she couldn’t believe he would turn down her request. The pout threatening to turn into a scowl, she said, “Very well. I wouldn’t want to interfere with business. Gracious, you’d think there was nothing more important in life, the hours Michael keeps.”
“Ah, well, business never ends, does it? Let me walk you out.”
Deftly avoiding having her place her hand on his arm, he ushered her to the door. “On my next buying trip, I’ll try to find some goods that might tempt even your discriminating taste.”
“You already have the goods to tempt me.” Giving him a sultry look, she ran the tip of her tongue over her lips—just in case he was too dim to understand her meaning, Booze supposed. “Michael works late every night.” She stepped closer and ran a finger along his sleeve. “Stop by some evening, and I’ll show you just how tempted I am.”
Resisting the strong urge to bat her hand away, Booze pulled his arm back and somehow manufactured a smile. “Watch your step on the stairs. The best of the day to you, Mrs. McCleary. And do visit the mercantile again soon.” With a tip of his hat, glad to be walking in the opposite direction, he set off for the stables.
End of Excerpt