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Authors: Penny Richards

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BOOK: An Untimely Frost
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The boxer! While her mind registered the phenomenon, he gave her his familiar audacious wink. For a moment, she was too stunned to do more than stare at him. When reason returned, she deliberately focused her attention back to the ancient dowager.
“My, my,” the woman said, her fan swishing back and forth in front of her face. “What a forward young man. Do you know him?”
“No, I've just seen him . . . around.” Was he following her as she'd first thought when she'd seen the notice?
“Well, he certainly seems smitten with you. Oh, dear! Here he comes.” Clearly interested in whatever was about to transpire, Matilda Hawthorne moved closer to Lilly and watched curiously as the “forward young man” approached them.
He looked to be in his late twenties, Lilly thought. Other than the scar on his cheek, the bump on his oft-broken nose, and the breadth of his shoulders, which was somewhat rare in the aristocratic circles of the upper class, there was little about him to suggest he was anything but a well-heeled young man about town. His hair had been touched with brilliantine in an effort to subdue the unruly dark waves into a semblance of neatness. He was clean shaven but for his neatly trimmed mustache. A two-button black dinner jacket with a satin shawl collar covered a wing-collared, stiff-fronted white shirt. Black, narrow-toed dress shoes and a white bow tie completed his fashionable evening attire.
His smile included Lilly and her companion.
Her initial impression of the boxer in Vandalia had been that he was flirty and supremely confident. His easy charm, so reminiscent of Timothy's behavior, was apparent by the way he moved through the crowd, smiling and speaking to every man and woman along the way. As the Red Sea had for the Israelites, the sea of bodies parted for him.
As he drew closer, his discerning blue gaze found hers. His mouth, beneath the dark mustache, lifted in another of those lazy smiles. Her fingers tightened around her beaded reticule. He stopped in front of her and Matilda, and made a huge show of kissing the older woman's hand and complimenting her on her attire. Matilda blushed and fluttered about like a bird in spring.
Good grief! The man was an inveterate flirt. If his behavior as he crossed the room was anything to go by, he chatted up anything in skirts. As she stood watching him and Matilda bantering back and forth, she became aware of the manly scent that emanated from him. It wasn't the bay rum he'd favored before—thank goodness—but something that smelled of sandalwood and patchouli and whispered of the Orient. She pressed her lips together and stiffened her spine.
Another well-dressed matriarch approached and took Matilda's arm, tugging her toward a small group across the way with a murmured apology. They gave a little wave to Lilly and sailed into the crowd.
The stranger focused his attention on her, his considering gaze traveling from her feet to the top of her head. Missing nothing.
“Hullo, ma'am,” he said with another smile. “It seems our paths were destined to cross again.” His rich Irish brogue fell from his finely shaped lips with lilting ease.
“By no fault of mine, I assure you,” Lilly responded in a chilly tone, her awareness making her forget her vow to be pleasant to him. “I begin to think you are following me.”
“And why would you be thinking that?” he asked, suddenly solemn.
Why was it, she wondered, that most dark-haired, blue-eyed people were exceedingly attractive?
“Perhaps because you do not appear to be the type to enjoy the theater.”
He placed his right hand over his heart, as if her words wounded him. “Ouch! Pretty to look at, but sharp of tongue.” The expression in his eyes was serious as he said, “I assure you, madam, that I have connections to the theater that go back to my youth, and I am not following you. I'm merely goin' where I'm sent, tryin' to make an honest living. What type of person
do
you have me pegged for, if I may be so bold to ask?”
“Well, after assessing each of our meetings, I think you are a man who uses his looks and his charm to get your way with women. I believe you are as good an actor as Miss Anderson is an actress.”
He laughed softly. Despite her determination, the husky sound sent a shiver of responsiveness through her.
Unmindful of her inner turmoil, the stranger gave a negligent shrug. “I told you I see no harm in a little flirting, and I cannot deny that I've had my share of success with the fair sex.”
“Oh, I do not doubt it,” she replied crossly.
Drat the man! He was too likeable for his own good or anyone else's for that matter.
Think of Timothy hurting you and Rose, of him stealing and spending your hard-earned money. Think of him doing that to all those other women.
“And you think that the attention I'm payin' to you is an act, that I have no real interest beyond my . . . ‘gettin' my way' with you?” he asked, that teasing glint back in his eyes.
“I dare say you do not want to know what I think, sir.”
He stared down at her, and before she knew what he was about, he reached out and touched her mouth with his fingertip. “‘. . . teach not thy lip such scorn, for it was made for kissing, lady, not for such contempt . . .'”
Lilly gasped, whether in surprise that he knew Shakespeare or shock at his boldness, she could not say. How dare he quote the bard to her! How dare he touch her! “Sir, you go too far!”
The teasing light in his eyes vanished, along with his smile. “Perhaps you're right, ma'am,” he said. “My most humble apology.” With a slight bow, he turned and left her to stew in her own ire.
C
HAPTER
32
L
illy stood there for several seconds, willing calmness. Rude, obnoxious man! She fluttered her fan in front of her face, trying to cool her anger and the heat of her embarrassment, but both raged too hotly inside her. Blast Tim, and blast the boxer, whoever he was! She had a job to do, and she would do it right, and Robert Pinkerton, Timothy Warner, and this burly buffoon could just go to Hades!
Seeing that the intermission was almost over, she started to return to her seat, but all pleasure in the evening had fled. Enjoying the remainder of the play would be impossible, since she could not rid her mind of a bold smile, husky laughter, and the lilt of an Irish accent. No, it was best that she return to the hotel and try to forget her encounter with the annoying stranger.
Furious at having her evening ruined, she took the claim ticket from her bag and retrieved her cape. As she pushed through Chatterton's entrance, she noticed that many of the patrons were drifting back to their seats for the second part of the play.
She made her way down to the street and looked around, hoping to catch a ride, but the cabs had yet to return to collect the theater's patrons. Few people were about: a couple climbed into a lone hack that rolled smartly down the street; across the way, a man strolled toward a woman standing beneath a streetlight. A prostitute, she thought. An enclosed buggy sat, horse waiting patiently for its owner to exit the theater.
Frustrated over her lack of conveyance, she stood, tapping the toe of her satin slipper. There was nothing to do but wait for the hired rigs to come back for their return fares. She spied a millinery shop across the street and decided to check out their spring offerings.
Though it was difficult to see clearly with only the streetlight for illumination, the straw and flower confections arranged in the window proved unsatisfactory in catching her interest, as did the dresses in the windows of the shop next door. Her run-in with the boxer had definitely soured her evening. What, if anything, should she make of him?
Was
he following her, or were their encounters random as he claimed?
Random or deliberate, he was taken with her, else he would not have instigated two conversations—or been such a flirt. She was equally pleased and distressed by the notion. Heredity warring with common sense. Interested in her or not, she realized that he was a hazard to anyone in a skirt.
Seeing nothing to interest her in the window displays of three more shops, she decided to go back to the theater and wait for a cab. Crossing the thoroughfare, she pulled a small watch from her reticule, but it was too dark to see the time. She was unaware that the buggy down the way had moved from its position and the horse had been whipped into action. Hearing the rumble of hooves, she stopped and turned to see the conveyance bearing down on her at the same moment she realized she was in the middle of the street.
For an instant, she could only watch as the rig thundered nearer.
Run, Lilly!
Before she could act on the thought, something iron-hard circled her waist from behind and snatched her out of harm's way.
A string of curses assailed her ear before she was set to the ground. Hard hands gripped her shoulders and spun her around. Once again, she found herself staring into the angry face of the pugilist. Was it her imagination, or had fear leached the color from his face and darkened his eyes?
He gave her a little shake. “What in the world were you doin' standin' in the middle of the street like that?” he demanded in a harsh voice. “You came within inches of bein' killed!”
Lilly stared up at him in disbelief. Her life had been in jeopardy, and he attacked her with anger? Her limited knowledge of men prevented her from knowing that rage was the typical masculine response to fear and situations over which they had no control.
Relief, the remnants of her own fear, and more than a bit of guilt for her own stupidity prompted her tart reply. “That, sir, is none of your business, and you are not my keeper.”
In frustration, he rammed his fingers through his dark hair and muttered something indistinguishable beneath his breath.
“I beg your pardon?”
“I said it is obvious that you need one.”
“How was I to know that the horse and buggy was being handled by a moron?” she asked, pulling free of his grasp and stepping away from him.
“Moron? That driver knew exactly what he was doing. He pulled away from across the street and headed straight toward you at a dead run. I saw the whole thing and aged ten years! You're lucky I got to you in time. Who've you angered lately?”
The biting comments came at her like bullets from a gun.
“No one.” The notion that someone had tried to run over her deliberately might have been laughable if her knees were not still knocking together. Then, without warning, she remembered the feeling of being watched while she was at Heaven's Gate and again as she'd walked to the hotel in Vandalia. And there was the note warning her to stop upsetting people's lives. She'd taken none of it seriously, but was it possible there was a real threat to her out there somewhere?
This man was in the same town as you both times.
She blinked at the thought and how much sense it made, yet contrarily, she felt no fear of him. “Were you following me?” she demanded, narrowing her eyes in suspicion.
“Guilty as charged,” he snapped with brutal frankness.
Lilly couldn't hide her surprise.
“I wanted to see if I could somehow make amends for my earlier behavior.”
The explanation defused both her anger and her suspicions. She gathered her wrap around her and regarded him with a thoughtful expression. Whether or not he had followed her from Vandalia was known only to himself and God. At worst, the man standing before her had saved her from death; at the very least, from severe injury. To refuse him forgiveness and a thank you would be the height of rudeness.
“Apology accepted,” she told him, though her tone held an undeniable chill. “And thank you.”
“There now, that didn't hurt too much, did it?” he mocked. Before she could reply, he held out his arm, and said, “Would you accept an invitation to dinner tomorrow night?”
“I don't plan on being here tomorrow night,” she said, “and even if I were, you are the last person in Springfield I would agree to have dinner with.”
He shook his head and made a
tsking
sound. “Coyness is not your forte, is it, colleen?”
Colleen! Memories of the woman Timothy had slept with swept into her mind. “Don't call me that!” she snapped. “And playing coy is for women who wish to land a man.”
“And you have no desire to do that?” he queried with a lift of one heavy eyebrow. “Most women do.”
“That is a folly I have already committed, much to my regret. And I am not most women.”
“You certainly are not,” he agreed. “And you must have made a poor choice.”
His observation was too close to the truth. “My choices are none of your concern, sir, and I believe you pass the bounds of propriety with this line of conversation.”
“Indeed I do,” he told her. He offered her his arm once again. “Let's get you back to your hotel.”
“That's where I was going,” she told him. “And I'm quite capable of getting myself there if you will be so kind as to secure me a cab.”
At some time during the harrowing escapade, a few carriages had begun to arrive in hopes of capturing prime spots in front of the theater. With nothing but a considering glance and a wry lift at the corners of his lips, the boxer gave a piercing whistle and waved at the driver of a shiny black calash, which promptly pulled up next to them.
“Will you permit me to act the gentleman and help you up, or can you manage that by yourself as well?” he demanded in a tone that straddled amusement and exasperation.
The heat of embarrassment suffused her face. Instead of answering, she held up her gloved hand for assistance. Ignoring it, he spanned her waist with his strong hands and swung her up into the four-wheeled buggy. As she settled into her seat beneath the folding half top, she saw him hand a bill to the driver. “The lady will tell you where to take her.”
Before she could protest, he stepped aside and gave her an abbreviated bow. “G'night, Lilly,” he said, his eyes glittering with something closely akin to exasperation. Without another word, he turned and headed back toward the theater.
BOOK: An Untimely Frost
6.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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