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Meg Brooks was going to get married if it was the last thing she did.
Marriage hadn't been her cause until recently. What she'd really wanted to do was go into the hotel business. After all, her family owned the Brooks House Hotel and she knew more about it than anything else. She'd assumed, expected, to be able to contribute to the hotel's operation once she graduated from finishing school.
But when she'd approached her father, he said she was too young and inexperienced to take such a responsibility on. She wasn't asking to run the hotel by herself. Merely to improve it. She tried to explain to Father that by giving her a chance, she would gain the experience. And when she pressed on and spoke her suggestions, he thought her ideas on lobby renovation were silly.
The word still hurt.
George Brooks's decision had been final. Too stubborn to accept defeat, Meg had written letters of qualification to hotels in the area. The responses were all the same: No thank you. So Meg had to accept that her dream of eventually running the family hotel would never come to pass, and she had to pin her hopes on something else.
That something else was a man.
On her mother's insistence, Meg had enrolled in Mrs. Wolcott's Finishing School, formerly Edwina Huntington's Finishing School. Miss Edwina's lessons on propriety and proper feminine protocol had proved to be so well-founded, Miss Edwina herself had landed a husband last year.
A fact that Meg's mother never missed an opportunity to point out.
For most of her life, Meg had fought against being like Iris Brooks. Refined and stuffy and no fun at all. Meg had been a terror as a little girl, doing whatever she pleased; usually boy things because she tagged along with her brother, Wayne, and his gang of mischief makers. She'd been fearless and fancy free.
It was only after sitting through several of Mrs. Wolcott's classes, that Meg realized in order to gain a potential husband's attention, a woman must act like a suitable wife. The three Cs: cultured, civilized, charming.
Three things that eluded Meg -- she had to pursue them.
This past fall and winter, Meg had attended the finishing school but she hadn't put her heart in it. She hadn't wanted to wear her hair in a high twist. She hadn't wanted to have to remember her gloves. She didn't want to know about proper teatime conversations. To learn what to say and when to say it.
Meg had just continued to be, well...Meg.
Now that she had distanced herself from the rebellion against her mother's idea, she saw that Edwina Wolcott was blissfully happy. As was Crescencia Defresne, a former student who had married last December. With marriage, and the love of a man, perhaps Meg could find her own contentment.
So she'd recently reformed and turned herself into a lady. What had worked for Miss Edwina and Crescencia could work for her. Meg was now Margaret, the Sophisticate. Polished and poised. She could succeed at this. After all, she'd gotten the wardrobe down pat. Well, almost...
"Margaret, why do you insist on displaying your petticoat?" This came from Ruth Elward, Meg's longtime friend. Her white-blond hair was artfully braided in a twist beneath her hat. Dark brown eyes grew inquisitive as she awaited Meg's reply.
"Yes, why?" The second query was uttered by Hildegarde Plunkett. A pretty girl with a round face and slightly ungainly figure.
To an observer, the three young women in spring-colored dresses, with gloves and open parasols, strolling along Birch Avenue looked the epitome of fashion and refinement. Except for the small detail that Meg Brooks didn't keep in tune with the others' footsteps. With a springy bounce to her step, she kept getting ahead of them.
Meg momentarily gazed at her feet as she walked. The insteps of her silk-vested top shoes barely showed because indeed lace flounce fell a half inch below her skirt hem.
Raising her eyes, Meg replied, "It's a fashion rage. I read about it in Harper's Bazaar. The article said a flirt of underskirt is considered vogue and is supposed to do wonders in catching the attention of the opposite sex."
Hildegarde twirled her parasol. "My mother would say, if it takes a peek of petticoat to catch a man these days, then you're trying to catch the wrong type of man." Then she wistfully paused. "I read the same article. I wanted to take my petticoat hems down too, but my mother wouldn't let me."
"Margaret, would you please slow down," Ruth chided.
"Yes," Hildegarde seconded, walking even slower, "you're making us look like we're in a hurry."
Meg was in a hurry. Her two friends kept a pace as slow as a snail's. Today Meg had something very important to do, just as she had the past few days. Ruth and Hildegarde knew full well why she was excited to be on her way, but they didn't see her short-term involvement with the hotel as anything special.
"What's all this about not having the attention of a man?" Ruth asked. "Have you forgotten about Harold Adams?"
Meg wanted to forget about Harold Adams. He'd taken a sweetheart's interest in her only recently -- as soon as she'd "conformed" and given up her old ways, he'd come knocking on her door.
With a sigh, Meg clarified, "Harold Adams isn't the type of man a woman envisions herself married to."
Ruth asked, "What's wrong with him?"
Meg lowered her voice, "Don't you think his Adam's apple sticks out too far?"
"I hadn't noticed," Hildegarde offered.
"Oh, you're just trying to be nice," Meg insisted, picking up her pace once more. With her swifter stride, she nearly tripped on the low hem of her petticoat; she even faltered a little but quickly caught her step. "You can't help noticing the way it moves up and down when he talks. It hits you right in the eyes. I try not to stare, but sometimes I can't help it."
Meg exhaled her frustration. "And to make matters worse, he had to go and have the last name Adams just to remind everyone. I know the girls in class call him Harold Adam's Apple."
Reluctant nods were her answer.
There. She knew it.
Thankfully they'd reached the hotel and Meg didn't have to talk about Harold Adams anymore. But it wasn't that thought that put a lightness in her walk. For the next month or so, while her parents were away in Niagara Falls on an anniversary tour, Meg was in charge of the hotel lobby.
In reality, her grandmother had been left to oversee the operation of the Brooks House Hotel; but dear Grandma Nettie trusted Meg to change whatever she felt needed improving. For that, Meg was extremely grateful. She wished Grandma Nettie lived with them all the time, not just when her parents were away. Even though, Grandma was a bit...militant.
Meg and her friends said their good-byes and parted company. As she took the hotel steps, Meg forgot to hold her skirts up and she felt a tug on the waistband of her petticoat. Discreetly hiking the elastic up through the soft fabric of her shirtwaist, she entered the lobby and confidently strode to the registry counter where her grandmother stood.
Meg's grand spirits momentarily faltered when she saw what Grandma Nettie was doing.
Spry for her age of seventy-two, she rearranged the two-foot length of bicycle chain with self-locking shackles and bronze metal lock, in a long spill across the front of the counter -- smack next to the guest book.
After a soft bite on her lower lip, Meg hesitantly asked, "Grandma, do you have to set that out?"
Grandma Nettie's fingers fiddled with the chain until its links were perfectly straight. Meg watched. Even though her grandmother had told her she was going to put the bicycle chain on exhibit, Meg had wished she hadn't.
Of course the old Meg was intrigued, but the new, improved Margaret was supposed to be appalled. Especially because Grandma had been telling every last guest exactly what it was for.
"Don't you go getting delicate on me, Margaret, like your mother."
"I'm not," Meg assured, then suddenly realized that once indoors, she should have closed her parasol and removed her gloves. Such a nuisance to remember every little detail.
With a tug, she collapsed the circular canopy and deposited the parasol into the umbrella stand next to the front door. Then she pulled her gloves off and tossed them carelessly behind the registry.
"Don't get me wrong," Grandma went on. "I love your mother as if she were my own daughter, but she can be a tad...too delicate."
"A tad?" Meg said with exasperation. "She's a good deal more than that. Mother calls a chicken leg the limb. And the breast a bosom because she won't say breast at the dinner table, or anyplace else for that matter. She'll say to Father, 'Papa, slice me the bosom.' Honestly."
"Honestly, is right." Wizened smoky blue eyes lifted to view Meg over the narrow lenses of Grandma's spectacles. "And in answer to your question, I most surely do. This chain represents the militant movement that I intend to personally bring to President McKinley's attention. That is, as soon as your parents get back from Niagara Falls."
Meg asked, "But do you have to chain yourself to the White House in order to make him notice you? Couldn't you simply write him a letter?"
"This is the fighting age, Margaret. Women have to get themselves arrested to attract attention to the cause. A letter won't get me thrown in the hoosegow. My fellow sisters and I plan to convene on the steps May the eighth at noon. We have it on good authority that's the hour the president takes his lunch on the State Floor in the northwest dining room."
As Meg listened, she asked herself what right-minded gentleman would want to marry into such a family?
A proper lady would never consider doing such a thing as getting arrested for making a public fuss. Although there was an appealingly brazen and defiant ring to causing such trouble.
No! Meg determinedly squelched the flash of excitement over the prospect of being put in jail.
Grandma Nettie forged on. "Our intentions are to ruin his meal by locking ourselves on the ornamental iron fence along the north facade. Mrs. Gundy is even going to swallow her key. I'm hiding mine down the front of my corset. Let it be said, that the man who dares try and retrieve it will be sorry he ever laid a hand on my person. I know how you incapacitate a man with physical force. Have I told you how, Margaret?"
"Good. Don't be afraid to do it if the need arises."
Grandma Nettie's limber arm rose into a position much like the Statue of Liberty's. "We shall fight for equality and the right for all women to have the vote."
"But I don't want to vote," Meg replied.
"Margaret, of course you want to vote."
"No I don't."
"Why with your intelligence, you could be anything you wanted to be." With robust enthusiasm, she declared, "I think you'd make a fine first woman president."
"I'd rather be a hotel proprietress. Or, at the very least, irresistible to men."
At this rate, she'd settle for agreeable to one man -- any man, as long as he was tall, dark, and handsome. Oh, all right, she recanted. As long as he didn't have an Adam's apple that stuck out too far or sweaty hands, and didn't wear too much pomade in his hair.
A voice called out, "Good afternoon. Welcome to the Brooks House Hotel," as the porter, Delbert Long, opened the double front doors and escorted a guest inside.
"We'll continue our talk about this another time, Margaret." Grandma left the desk to greet the new arrival.
In spite of her resolve, Meg pondered Grandma Nettie's words. Our intentions are to ruin his meal by locking ourselves on the ornamental iron fence along the north facade. By doing that, her grandmother was going to throw Washington into chaos. The operative word was going to be scandalous. Meg hadn't done anything scandalous in far too long. She'd never thought about seeing the White House up close. Maybe she could...
No. She couldn't possibly. She was through with misadventure.
Tamping the wayward thought, Meg walked toward the cabinet where she kept cigars. When she'd entered the lobby, she'd noticed the silver tray on the conversation table had been nearly empty of Pilsens. As her special touch, she'd purchased cigars for the men and a cuspidor, placed by the front door on the outside -- Meg didn't abide indoor spitting. She'd arranged for tea and scones to be brought over in the afternoon for the ladies. Fresh flowers on the fireplace mantel brightened the area every day. And when she could manage it, a violinist for evening enjoyment.
Although Delbert Long was the only violinist she knew -- and really, it wasn't a violin he played; it was a fiddle. But beggars couldn't be choosers.
Meg had gotten no farther than five or so paces when she heard an ominous rip. Wide-eyed, she stopped dead in her tracks and slowly looked down. She could feel the damage before she could actually see it.
A silky slippage of material passed her hips and thighs as the snapped elastic and torn waistband began to make its embarrassing descent.
She felt through the fabric of her skirt, grabbed what she could and sidled her way back to the counter. Reaching over the registry, she fumbled for the room keys that were kept on individual hooks. She took the first one her fingers touched, then lifted herself on tiptoe to view the inside of Grandma Nettie's sewing basket. Spotting a safety pin, she stole that as well. With the loose gathers of her petticoat around her hips, and her skirt riding high above her calves, she shot up the stairs without a backward glance.
Knees knocking together, Meg half-walked, half-ran across the carpet runner in the hall. She glanced at the circular tag on the key ring. Room thirty-two. In her haste, she hadn't noticed if two keys had been on the desk hook. One meant the room was occupied and two meant it was vacant. The hotel would be full by this weekend when all the fly fishermen arrived in Harmony for the tournament. A few already had registered and were in residence now. Thankfully, none were in view.
Almost stumbling to keep her underskirt from falling; past her knees, Meg started skimming the numbers on doors.
Coming to room thirty-two, she bunched her skirt in her left hand and inserted the key with her right. Before she turned the knob, she rapped twice on the door and waited to the count of fifteen.
Letting her breath out, she slipped inside the room and shut the door behind her.
Meg made quick inspection of the furnishings. Not a single piece of luggage or any personal effects in sight. Thank goodness. Spring sunshine spilled in from the window and made a pattern on the floor that stretched to the closed bathroom door. After tossing the key onto the bed, she relaxed and her petticoat fell to her ankles. Opening the safety pin, she held it in her mouth, then wadded her Manchester cloth skirt to her waist and bent to hoist her petticoat over her ankles and knees to her hips.
With a wiggle, Meg brought the torn waistband to its proper place.
Not the best seamstress, Meg realized after the fact, her stitches were too far apart. Tightness and neatness her mother always said when making a seam. Well, Meg was too impatient for that. She'd revamped all five of her petticoats in under an hour flat, and was rather proud of herself for her speed.
Just as she matched the raveled edges of waistband, caught the elastic, and was about to take the pin from her mouth, the bathroom door opened and Meg's head shot up. Shock flew through her as a man -- half naked -- stood in the doorway.
"Oh my," she exclaimed. The starched white muslin in her grasp fell, and the entire petticoat collapsed in a pile around her feet.
A towel was wrapped around his lean middle, and she couldn't help staring at his navel. Coarse black hair swirled there, very lightly sprinkled. And against a belly so flat she could iron a shirtwaist on it and not have a single wrinkle. Upward...a chest like a washboard and shoulders wider than she'd ever noticed on a man.
Tall and muscular, with wet hair the color of midnight, a slight growth of beard, bushy brows tapered just enough to be utterly handsome, a set of eyes too dreamy a green for words. And the nicest shaped mouth she'd ever seen.
"Where did you come from?" His voice, so manly and...deep, sent a delightful shiver through her body. Not to mention, his gaze ran over her hotter than her hair curler when she forgot about it on the lamp. She could almost feel the sizzle in the air, as he lowered his eyes to her stocking-clad legs.
Mortification shot through her like a dart and she dropped her skirt.
Other than that modest gesture, she couldn't move. She was too stunned to do anything more than keep her lips together in an effort not to swallow the safety pin.
"Hello," she managed, through the pin in her teeth.
"Who are you?" Aside from his question and the furrow in his brow, the man seemed undaunted to find an uninvited female in his room.
"Ah...Miss Mah-eg Bah-rooks." She spit the safety pin into her hand. "I'm Miss Meg Brooks." Uh-oh. She'd introduced herself wrong. She should have said Margaret, not Meg. Flustered, she'd forgotten she'd changed her name to sound more sophisticated. But there was no taking it back now without looking like an idiot. So she just kept talking. "My father owns the hotel."
He showed no outward discomfort -- being nearly nude in front of her, and all. She, on the other hand, felt the onset of dizziness. For all her talk about wanting a man to notice her, here she was face-to-face with one, and she had an overwhelming urge to run and hide.
Only she was frozen to the spot.
Greenish-gold eyes narrowed. "What happened to you?"
Trying to keep a modicum of dignity, she said, "I had a bit of an...accident. You see my..." Her mother's stern warning sounded inside her head. She was told a young lady never mentioned an article of clothing to a man -- ever. Even if he was her husband. So a straightforward explanation was out of the question. "I, that is my..." Meg's voice trailed. Why couldn't she just say the word petticoat in front of him and explain what happened? Had all the lessons in deportment finally sunk in?
Meg gazed at the layers of petticoat covering her shoes that looked a lot like ripples of untoasted meringue, then lifted her eyes. At length, she took the coward's way out and hoped he wouldn't notice she didn't give him a definitive answer. "Are you finding your accommodations here sufficient? Is there anything you require?"
He took a few steps, and she noted his stomach never flinched in the least. It stayed just as taut and hard when he moved. Even though her skirts covered her legs, her petticoat stuck out like a red flag. He gave it a glance, then slowly lifted his eyes to her face. Studying her. Intently. Meg swallowed.
Giving her a crooked smile, he said, "Have you come to turn down my bed?"
Meg wasn't sure if she'd heard him correctly. "W-what?"
"You asked me if I needed anything."
"Yes, well...I can have...Delbert..."
"I don't imagine Delbert is as pretty as you."
Pretty? He thought she was pretty.
Meg felt a warmimig shiver across her skin.
He took a step toward the bed and she got an eyeful of his broad back. Wide and rippling with muscles. Then he turned to face her and Meg's gaze fell on the tuck in his towel, thinking that it didn't look very secure and could fall off at any moment. Her throat went dry.
He said, "If you haven't come to turn the bed down, have you brought my bags?"
Guiltily flashing her gaze upward, she said in a rush, "You have bags?" Why hadn't he taken them up with him?
"When I left the train station, I did. All I have with me is my case."
That explained it. A haphazard check in. "Oh...then I'm certain Delbert will get them for you."
Think Meg! She had to get out of here. If anyone found out she was in a hotel room with a half-naked man, she would be ruined. The image of the cultivated lady she'd worked so hard to portray would fizzle. To think, she'd just been contemplating a scandal. Well, if this wasn't scandalous behavior, she didn't know what was.
Escape was the operative word here. But not until she could walk without tripping on her unmentionables. How did one make herself look a lot more at ease and calm pulling up her muslin and pinning it while a man watched? She just couldn't. Not even the old Meg had that much nerve.
The heat on her cheeks burned hotter than a stove. It took every bit of self-reliance she could collect to plan her retreat -- a retreat she wasn't sure she wanted to make. After all, he was gorgeous. Positively the most attractive man she'd ever seen nearly naked. Who was she fooling? He was the only man she'd ever seen nearly naked.
Miss Edwina's words drifted to her: When a woman is approached by a man she hasn't been introduced to, she must ask for his calling card to ensure he has "Mr." in front of his name and has listed his street and number. Meg was certain her man in the towel didn't have one on him. Bother it anyway, she had to leave or else face consequences she couldn't repair.
Stepping out of her petticoat, she dipped down and bunched it in her fists. "I have to be going now." She pressed the stiff cloth, against her breasts, keeping her arms crossed and covering as much fabric as she could.
"If you need anything...don't, ah, hesitate to ask at the front desk." With a backward walk, she managed to get to the door and clutch the knob. Turning with what she hoped appeared to be a polished gracefulness, she opened the door. Checking first to see if the coast was clear, she hadn't taken a single step out of the room.
Grandma Nettie came down the hallway escorting the new arrival to his room while Delbert Long rolled the second-story bellman's cart right behind them and directly toward her.
Meg slammed the door and pressed her back against it, the petticoat stiff at her breasts -- only one-handed now. The other hand was like a vise on the doorknob.
"Another accident?" the man queried. A single brow rose in a wry arch.
Panic welling in her throat, Meg couldn't reply.
The sharp reverberation against her shoulder blade as the wooden door panel was knocked on, made Meg jump away as if she'd been scorched.
More knocking. Then: "Porter, sir," came Delbert's announcement.
Standing in the middle of the room, looking helplessly from one end of the bed to the bureau and fireplace and the bathroom door, she didn't know where to hide. And when the man proceeded toward her with that damp towel looking ready to fall off, she squeezed her eyes closed and took in a deep breath. Certainly no help for the situation, but if that towel unwrapped from his middle and exposed him, she didn't want to see. On the other hand, she could look through the fringe of her lashes and he wouldn't be the wiser...
Precariously close to her ear, and in a whisper so deliciously low and baritone it caused her to literally gasp, he bade, "Go into the bathroom and close the door."
Her bearings crashing in on her from the deepness of his voice, her eyes flew open. Through the repeated knock on the door, she said, "I can't hide in there. You don't know Delbert."
Having no choice, she made a dash for the bed and scrambled down. She tucked herself beneath the mattress frame, making sure the full width of her skirt hem had been pulled in and hidden with her. Scooting into the middle, she roused the dust bunnies from the floor. The flying tufts of lint made her think she had to sneeze. She buried her nose in the wad of her petticoat and peered over the cloth.
She couldn't see the man's feet. He'd gone to the door. It opened and Delbert gave a hearty greeting.
"Good afternoon, sir. My apologies for the delay in fetching your luggage. As you can see, the matter has been rectified. I'll put them where you like."
The porter entered the room and came straight to the bed and stopped. Meg stared at his shoes. Lace ups. Calf-skin bluchers. In need of polishing on the right heel.
"Criminy sakes alive," the man declared in a put-out tone, "I wondered if my luggage had been left on the tram and was headed for the nether parts of the region to be seized upon by vagabonds."
Meg's mouth fell open.
"Not to worry, sir," Delbert assured. "Where shall I put your things?"
"The bed will be fine, my good fellow," the man directed. She couldn't see him. He must have remained by the door.
What happened to him? His words had just shattered her illusion of his perfect manliness. Mr. Oh-So-Wonderful suddenly had the speech of a mildewedscholar.
Meg's nose itched. She rubbed it in the muslin.
Delbert walked away, then returned once more and set articles on the bed; it creaked some. The springs were slightly worn.
Two bare feet came close, then disappeared into the bathroom. He came back and stood by the bed once more. She studied his masculine toes. Nicely shaped. The nails clean with perfect trimmed whites. Some dark hairs over the tops of his knuckles. Low arches. She thought they were very beautiful for being feet.
She must have not heard him correctly before. Any man with feet like these wouldn't say "criminy sakes alive."
"Thanks," Mr. Wonderful said as a jingle of change exchanged hands.
She couldn't possibly be so lucky Delbert would leave without giving his full routine. Not him.
"Sir, allow me to show you the features of this room."
Meg's forehead lowered and bumped quietly on the floorboards. Nope. No luck for her.
"This is one of our better rooms. You'll notice the bed is quite comfortable, it being of the iron brass frame variety rather than solid oak, which can tend to warp." Delbert walked on. His shoes were buffered by the large rug in front of the mantel. "We keep wood for the fireplace year-round in case of a cold spell. With this being late March, one can never tell. The temperature drops quite considerably at night."
"I'll remember that. Thank you for telling me." Bare feet walked by the bed and toward the door once more. "If I need anything else, I'll call on the front desk."
"But, I haven't shown you the bathroom features. Modern plumbing -- just a year old. I can see you've tried out our shower bath. Was it acceptable?"
Meg held onto a frown. Dandy?
She just couldn't put that vocabulary together with the looks and sound of the man. But then again, the men of Harmony had trouble putting charm and culture together with her.
Thuds sounded as the porter went to the bathroom, undaunted by the man's dismissal. Delbert Long was never put off. "This way, sir, and I'll demonstrate in case you overlooked anything."
The man must have sensed Delbert wouldn't leave until finished, so he went with him. Hot and cold water faucets turned on and off. Then the shower curtain slid on its hooks. The opening and closing of the cabinet. A flush from the toilet, or as her mother would say, the necessary.
At last, they exited the bathroom.
Meg turned her face to see if she could find a snippet of the porter's shoes. As she did so, she practically choked on a bouncing puff of linen fuzz. Her sneeze came through her nose before she could stop it.
"What was that?" Delbert asked.
"I didn't hear anything."
Meg held her breath as Delbert's shoes filled her view once more. She began inching her way farther back to the bed's headboard. As she did so, her upswept hair caught on a coil and tugged. She bit her lip hard to keep from crying out, but a small squeak escaped her.
"There it is again," Delbert declared. "A sneeze before and now a yelp."
"There's nothing of the kind." The man walked Delbert to the door and opened it. "I'm sure you have other guests to see to. Thank you again."
As Delbert wished him a pleasant stay, the door was closed midway through his oft-repeated sentence.
Meg didn't readily move. Her scalp throbbed where her hair had caught. If she could have, she would have lifted her arms to undo herself, but space didn't permit such a maneuver.
"You can come out now. He's gone."
"Ah...yes, I know. But I can't."
"What do you mean, you can't?"
"I've had a slight..." She couldn't finish.
"Let me guess." He lowered again and stuck his head beneath the bed. She gave him her bewitching smile, the one she practiced in the mirror after brushing her teeth. Unfortunately it didn't have the affect on him she'd hoped. "You've had another accident."
Frowning her disappointment that he didn't find her divinely captivating, she mumbled, "Yes, I did. My hair is stuck and I can't get out. You have to get me free. My hands won't reach the springs."
She thought she heard him mutter an expletive as he stood. And it wasn't anything close to "criminy sakes alive."
The towel fell on the floor in a clump, then more shuffling inside bags until a pair of worsted trousers came into sight and first one leg then the other slipped into the dark blue trouser legs. He lowered himself to his knees again, then laid on his belly and crawled in toward her.
This close to him, and in such a confining space, the scent of his bathing soap filled the air. El Soudan's coconut oil. She'd know it anywhere. The traces smelled so good, she could almost taste him.
She got that giddy feeling again when he reached for her and his fingers tangled in her hair. Explosions of tingles ran down her spine when he sifted through the hair and pulled out pins in order to take down the high pile. Her gaze remained fixed on the floor until she mustered the nerve to look him in the eyes. When she did, her breath caught and, at the same time, his hand stilled. He looked right at her...as if he were going to...
She didn't know. She'd never seen that kind of fire in a man's eyes before when he gazed at her. That kind of passion and fire she read about but had never experienced. Could he tell she'd discovered paradise in his simple touch?
As he resumed his task, his knuckles brushed her cheek. On purpose? She dared to hope that he had. He was very gentle. A few more carefully orchestrated pulls that separated strands of hair, and she was free.
But neither of them moved. The moment seemed to be etched in time. She would never forget it. Whatever happened, she would always remember this as her first truly sensual encounter.
In his eyes, she saw a war of conflict as if, despite his best intentions, he wasn't thinking honorably. That she, Meg Brooks who had barely turned over a new leaf, could make a man have dishonorable thoughts...well, a those hours in finishing school were paying off.
He brought his fingertip slowly down the curve of her cheek. Clearly no accident. She grew pleasantly flustered, liking the sensation.
"You can get out now. If you want," he said in a deep whisper giving her the choice of staying. She couldn't possibly stay hidden beneath his bed; the complications were simply too wicked to think about.
"All right -- "
With those two words from her, he nodded. Had there been a flicker of regret in his green eyes? He backed away and extended his hand. It was big and inviting.
First a little hesitant, she relented and laid her fingers in his. Smooth palm with no calluses. No sweating either.
His grip wasn't that of a loafer; she was acutely conscious of his impressive strength. She slid from under the bed, petticoat still balled in her fist. He assisted her to her feet. As he did so, her hair tumbled into her eyes, around her shoulders and down to her waist. She'd never liked the color. Copper. So...so vivid and...coppery. She stuck out like a sore thumb throughout school. Well, maybe not only herself. Crescencia. Dufresne's hair was red-orange. Meg supposed copper was better. But not by much.
The man stared at the burnished red waves of hair surrounding her as she made a part in the thick curtain so she could see him in return. He gave her a look over but she couldn't tell what he thought of the copper-color. He probably thought it too much.
"Thank you. I have to go. But..." Now Meg had her hair to contend with as well as the petticoat. She couldn't reappear in the lobby in the state she was in. She had to fix herself up before she left this room.
He reached for her and lifted her hand. She felt her pulse beat unevenly at the base of her throat. He pressed her hairpins into her palm, as well as the safety pin she must have dropped on the floor. Then in that husky voice of his, "Go into the bathroom and put yourself together."
If he hadn't nudged her with a light push of her shoulders, she doubted she could have moved. She'd been transfixed by the play of light from the window that reflected in his eyes.
Once she snapped out of her trance, she strode into the bathroom and made short work out of repairing herself. In the process, she took in the items strewn on the floor. An expensive suit coat, vest, starched white shirt, trousers, and a twist of white drawers. In the comer by the bathtub lay a traveling case, its clasp not fastened. Barely discernable from the opening was the pearl-grip of a gun.
A gun. A mix of fear and curiosity tattooed with Meg's heartbeat. Who was he?
With a parting glance in the mirror, she poked the last hairpin home and returned to the bedroom apartment once more.
The man had slipped into a shirt in her absence, although he hadn't buttoned it. A wedge of chest showed through the opening. That tantalizing glimpse of short and forbidden masculine hair.
She paused at the bed, stared at the mound of luggage and fishing gear, then picked up the key she'd tossed earlier. "Well," she sighed taking short steps to the door, "thank you for everything. I'm sorry for the inconvenience I caused you."
He made no comment; merely stared, making a leisurely study of her lips, her eyes, her hair. He looked at her in a way he had no business doing, but his gaze held her still. Her skin grew very warm. It felt as if he were touching her without touching her.
Gun or no gun, she couldn't leave. Not yet. Not until she knew his name. She was utterly smitten by him.
"Well, thank you again Mr....ah...?"
A heavy frown marked his forehead, as if he'd become quite annoyed about something. Then: "Wilberforce. Vernon Wilberforce."
Copyright © 1999 by Stef Ann Holm