What is your greatest fear? I don’t mean rational fears like losing a loved one or having a car crash. I mean those for which we have no explanation. For me, one is claustrophobia, so I don’t like elevators. Not at all, except they are easier than climbing flight after flight of stairs. I ride elevators, and I don’t collapse when the doors close me in or run screaming when the doors open. Only my family members (and now you ☺) know each ride in one of the tiny, closed-in, closet-like boxes has me forcing myself not to panic. Don’t even ask me about riding in a the very small, private elevator at my cousin’s home.
When I wrote THE MOST UNSUITABLE HUSBAND: The Kincaids, Book Two , I tried to think of the most frightening things to torture my hero. I remembered my father telling me my grandfather had known a man who was buried alive and clawed his way up from the grave. Even thinking about it has me shuddering. So, that’s what I did to my hero, Nathaniel Bartholomew, to open this book. Not only does he face his claustrophobia once in the opening, but two more times in one book. After all, a hero is not someone who is unafraid of danger; he is someone who faces fear to do what is right.
Now don’t think that Nate is immediate hero material. He has the innate qualities, but the process of discovering who he is takes him most of the book (as you knew it would, right?). He’s lived most of his life in rebellion and scorned those who labor in honest toil. In short, he’s a gambler and a con man. His friend Michael “Monk” Magonagle is a steadying force in Nate’s life. In spite of Monk’s watch, trouble and Nate are well-acquainted.
Sarah Kincaid is Nate’s opposite. She is one who has always led an exemplary life and tries to please those she loves and admires. Her half-sister Pearl (heroine of THE MOST UNSUITABLE WIFE: The Kincaids, Book One) is the person Sarah most admires. To fit in socially, she also emulates the dress and deportment of her adopted aunt, Lily Stephens. Lily is not easy to love, but Sarah is so kind she is even fond of the waspish Lily. Well, at least she tolerates her. Sarah needs to discover her identity, too, and learn to be her own person, not a reflection of others.
Sarah, Pearl, and their half-brother Storm shared the same father with very different mothers. Sarah’s mother was a bordello/saloon owner who eventually married a man she loved and together they owned a casino in St. Louis, Missouri. As we meet Sarah in THE MOST UNSUITABLE HUSBAND, she is at her mother’s funeral, after nursing her tubercular mom’s last days. Since no lady can travel alone, Aunt Lily has accompanied Sarah on the trip. Is Lily a dependable chaperone? Only when it suits her.
What would bring Sarah and Nate together? How about a trio of homeless orphans on their own in winter? Sarah plans to take them home with her to Texas, and she enlists Nate to help her rescue them from desperate circumstances. Don’t worry, she also hires a kind woman to travel with her. Is it her fault Nate insists on traveling along?
Sarah Kincaid wants only the simple things: a home, a family, and a place in the community where she can set a good example and lead a moral life. She launched her plan by establishing a school for the poorest children in the county. When she discovers that the terms of her mother’s will have made her the owner of a saloon, she is surprised. Even more shocking, is Sarah’s reaction to Nate. She doesn’t realize he is the son of her mother’s husband and his real name is Nathaniel Batholomew. He uses Barton in his con game with the Kincaids and their neighbors. Tall, dark and unmistakably tempting, Nate is a gambler by trade–and hardly an upright citizen.
Taking in a trio of starving orphans is not the way to conduct a romance. Sarah and Nate soon learn that the only proper thing to do under the circumstances is to let love take them where it will, and get ready for a passionate adventure. Sarah vows to reform him and finds him an eager pupil. Reforming a rogue is easier said than done and Sarah and Nate learn a great deal about themselves and others in their journey!
Set up: Sarah Kincaid is on her way home from her mother’s funeral in St. Louis. She repeatedly encounters a strange man and wonders if he’s following her. She’s traveling with an odious couple as chaperone’s, the Welborns, and they chose the hotel. In 1885, respectable hotels put single women and families on separate floors from single men.
That man in black–he’d introduced himself as Nathaniel Barton–had been at the cemetery. He was always around on the boat, too, and now he was here in their hotel in Memphis. He trailed behind her as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Surely it was coincidence. Lots of people traveled from St. Louis to Memphis every day.
The porter stopped in front of a room and opened the door. He stood back for her to enter, but not before she saw Mr. Barton at the next door. He even glanced her way and smiled as he nodded in greeting.
My stars, he’s staying in the very next room to mine.
What kind of hotel would allow a single man on the same floor as a single woman? She fought down panic as she dealt with the porter, then locked the door behind him and slid the bolt. Alone in her room, her imagination ran its course as she paced. Had she strayed into a den of iniquity?
No, that couldn’t be. Mrs. Welborn assured her this was a family hotel suitable for a young woman. After all, the Welborns registered here, too. How did Mr. Barton come to be in the very room next to her? It wasn’t proper. What would people think? What would they say?
She caught herself. The Welborns were the only people here she knew, and she hardly cared what they thought other than their reports back to the Vermillions and Aunt Lily. Even they could hardly blame her for the hotel’s room assignments.
This Mr. Barton could not mean her harm. There’d been ample opportunity on the paddle wheeler had he intended to hurt her. They’d never had a conversation on a personal level. His comments had centered on the trip and the weather, not a hint of anything improper and always with others nearby. Perhaps his constant presence was a coincidence. Just the same, he made her nervous. She felt like a rabbit waiting for the wolf to pounce whenever Mr. Barton was near.
In the midst of her concern, she admitted his presence offered reassurance to her that she was protected from others. Surely he would rush to her aid if she needed assistance. Her instincts proved right regarding Mr. Welborn. Perhaps she should rely on intuition in this instance. She wished she were more decisive, not a victim of warring emotions.
She raised her skirt and checked the little double-shot derringer given her by her brother, Storm. Best to be prepared. The little gun still rested securely in its garter holster on her thigh. Storm had insisted she practice until she was a fair shot. Would she have the courage to use the weapon against a human? She doubted it, but its weight reassured her.
Sarah spied the door connecting her room with the one in which Mr. Barton resided. Rushing to check the lock, she stopped. She must not let him know she suspected him of following her. Very slowly she turned the knob of the connecting door. Locked. She released a heavy sigh.
Curiosity nudged her. Kneeling, she peered through the keyhole. The opening framed him as he pulled a fresh shirt from an open valise on the bed. Shucking his jacket and waistcoat, he took a pistol from his waistband and placed it on the bed beside the satchel. He unbuttoned his shirt.
She knew she should move away but couldn’t. Oh, my stars! He might dress like a riverboat dandy, but this gorgeous man was no weakling. Trouser fabric pulled taut against trim hip muscles when he turned and bent over the things on the bed.
Her mouth went dry as a Texas dust storm. She watched him turn back to face her. He removed his shirt and tossed it behind him on the bed. Then she saw the bandage across his shoulder and another at his waist. She wondered which side of the law he was on when he got those, but thought she knew. The wrong side, of course.
He picked up a fresh shirt and she caught the ripple of muscles across his chest as he slipped the shirt on. His movements were swift and powerful, not the sluggish ambling she had witnessed in public.
Occasionally in summer she had caught glimpses of her brother, her brother-in-law, and the hands at the ranch with their shirts off. Unlike their tanned torsos, Mr. Barton’s pale skin made her fingers tingle to touch the brown chest hair that converged in a vee at his belt. She wondered how far below his waist the pelt descended. A pool of warmth gathered at the base of her stomach.
My stars, what disgraceful thoughts. Where did they come from? They weren’t proper. No, not at all suitable. Being away from home must be having a poor effect on her.
Never before had such scandalous ideas entered her head about any man. She didn’t have these thoughts about Peter Dorfmeyer, and everyone expected her to marry Peter. Mr. Barton was the most attractive man she’d ever seen, but she must get her wayward thoughts under control.
Buttoning his shirt, Mr. Barton stepped from her view. When he returned and glared at the keyhole, she froze. Surely he couldn’t know she watched him. She sank further to the floor and sat with her back against the door.
Sarah pressed her hands to heated cheeks, shocked at her own behavior. She was no better than a window peeper. What on earth had come over her?
A sudden thought assailed her. What if he planned to look through the keyhole as she had? Taking a hanky from her cuff, she draped it over the doorknob so it hung across the tiny opening. No, that wouldn’t do. It kept sliding off. She rose and opened her traveling bag and took out a shirtwaist. Hanging it on the knob, she stepped back. Perfect. It looked as if she used the handle for a hook.
She crossed to the vanity. Not taking time to change from her traveling suit into a dress, she contented herself with pushing stray hair back into her chignon and grabbing her shawl. With any luck, she could purchase her train ticket while her neighbor had his dinner.
Sarah walked briskly to the train station. A line greeted her at the ticket window. Oh, well, she loved watching people, so she wouldn’t mind the wait. Taking her place in the row, she surveyed the other prospective passengers wandering to and fro. She studied the clothes of other women, compared them to her own black clothing. In her head she made up stories of who they were and where they might be headed.
A young boy bumped with a wham into the man in front of her. The child’s hand darted into the man’s pocket and out with a flash and secured the lifted wallet under his shirt. Probably no more than seven or eight, the lad wore the dirtiest clothes Sarah had ever seen. His hair might have been blond at one time, but it and his skin had gone a long time without touching soap and water.
“Oh, excuse me, sir.” The boy’s large blue eyes were the picture of innocence when he gazed up at the man.
Sarah gasped. What should she do? She couldn’t bring herself to cause a scene by screaming, but neither could she stand by and let the child rob this man.
“Steady, you little ragamuffin.” The victim placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Slow down and see you’re more careful next time.”
“Yes, sir, sorry. I will, sir.” The boy moved swiftly away into the crowd.
Sarah took off after the little thief. He looked over his shoulder and she motioned to him. His eyes widened in alarm and he ran. She gathered her skirts and rushed after him, weaving around groups of people.
When she had almost caught up with the light-fingered boy, she thudded against a solid wall of chest.
Mr. Barton grunted and clutched Sarah’s shoulders, then dropped his hands and made a slight bow. “Why, I believe it’s Miss Kincaid, is it not? Are you in some sort of distress?”
“No, it was nothing.” She peered over his shoulder but the thief was nowhere in sight. “I thought I saw someone I knew, but I was mistaken.” She felt her cheeks flush again with guilt. Their collision must have jarred his injured chest, but she couldn’t ask him about it. How could she explain that knowledge?
“Your traveling companions–Welwoods or Welworths–are they with you?”
“No. The Welborns were tired and planned to have dinner sent to their room.” She thanked heavens for that. Eating with the odious Mr. Welborn soured her stomach. But now this man who, for all appearances, followed her everywhere had neatly trapped her. A shiver of apprehension skittered down her spine, but she stood mesmerized by his tawny eyes.
As if he sensed her fear, he offered a crooked smile and proffered his` arm. “May I escort you back to the hotel?”
“I was…” she stopped. Her nerves jangled with alarm, but she strove to appear calm. She preferred buying her ticket in private. If he hadn’t yet learned where she headed, she didn’t want him to know her exact destination. “That would be very kind, um, Mr. Barton.”
“Bit cool this evening, isn’t it?”
My stars, didn’t the man ever talk about anything but the weather? Maybe he was one of those gorgeous physical specimens with the brain of a rock.
She sighed and answered, “Yes, there’s a chill in the air. I suppose we’re in for more winter.”
What should she do? Panic turned her stomach in knots. She should send him on his way, but didn’t know what to say or do. Hating herself for her timidity, she once more flowed with the easiest course and allowed herself to be escorted back to the hotel.
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