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Authors: Maralee Lowder

Crimson Palace

BOOK: Crimson Palace
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CRIMSON PALACE

Maralee Lowder

Rocket ISBN 1-58608-047-4

© copyright March 1998 Maralee Wofford

Cover art by Eliza Black

New Concepts Publishing

4729 Humphreys Road

Lake Park, GA 31636

http://www.newconceptspublishing.com

Prologue

Laura turned in her chair at the sound of the opening door. A dark haired, younger man entered the room. Glancing first at the senior attorney, his eyes shifted immediately to Laura. The instant flash of approval in his eyes indicated he couldn’t be more pleased with what he saw.

Laura Bradley, at twenty-eight, with her masses of wavy black hair and startlingly blue, thickly lashed eyes, was a remarkably beautiful woman. He responded immediately to her poised, confident air.

Striding across the room, he reached out for her extended hand as Allen Silverwood introduced them.

For the briefest of moments the older attorney was completely forgotten as a slight tingling sensation radiated from Mark’s hand to Laura’s.

Her lips parted slightly, as if to speak. Then, realizing there were no words appropriate for what she was feeling, she closed them. A quizzical smile touched Mark’s lips as he allowed his grasp to ease, releasing her fingers reluctantly.

For just an instant Laura was sure he would ask if they hadn’t met before, but instead he said, "I’m very pleased that we shall be working together, Miss Bradley. I hope you will feel free to call me at any time."

His voice wrapped around Laura, encasing her in a strange intimacy.

"I’ve already explained to Laura the conditions of her father’s will, Mark. As you know, she must read her grandmother’s journals before she takes possession of the Crimson Palace. Although there’s quite a stack of them, I expect she will finish before Gladys and I return from our vacation. Therefore, I’m leaving the keys with you so when Laura is ready, the two of you can inspect the property together."

"I look forward to you’re call, Miss Bradley. Please don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions."

Mark’s smoky gray eyes rested lightly on her lips.

"May I help you to your car? You have quite a load there."

Laura gratefully relinquished the journals. Walking side-by-side, their shoulders nearly touching, they left the building together.

Was this all a dream? It was all too fantastic! First she had inherited the Crimson Palace, her grandmother’s famous gambling casino and the fortune needed to run it, with the only stipulation being that she read her grandmother’s journals before taking possession. And now, walking next to her was undoubtedly the most intriguing man she had ever met.

She had never before experienced such a powerfully magnetic attraction to a man. There was the feeling that she had known him all her life. And how could she explain the sense that some unfathomable current flowed between them? Was her imagination working overtime, or did he feel it too?

"Thanks for the help," she said breathlessly as he heaped the last of the journals onto the front seat of her car. "I’ll give you a call as soon as I finish going through these. You can’t imagine how anxious I am to see the inside of the Crimson Palace. That old building has been a major part of my fantasies all my life."

"Easy to see why. It’s quite a place." His voice was soft yet exciting, with a slight raspiness to it. "You don’t have to wait to give me a call. I’ll always be here for you, no matter what the reason."

She thought about his parting words as she drove home. She may have been putting her own meaning into his words, but she had the distinct impression that his intent went beyond the realm of attorney/client business. The Crimson Palace faded from her thoughts as she recalled each word Mark had spoken, the tone of his voice, the penetrating gaze of his hooded, gray eyes. She smiled as she recalled that when he smiled one corner of his mouth rose slightly higher than the other.

Well, time enough to ponder the wonders of Mark Kilmar, she thought as she stacked the journals on her coffee table, carefully arranging them in chronological order. She could see she had her work cut out for her as she eyed the formidable collection of her grandmother’s diaries.

After eating a light supper, Laura brewed a fresh pot of coffee, found a comfortable spot on her sofa, and opened the earliest dated journal.

Shinonn

1850

Chapter 1

Shinonn Flannery’s tattered straw hat shaded her eyes from the shimmery rays of the relentless sun. She leaned languidly against the corral fence, feeling as if the relentless heat had dried up her very last ounce of energy.

Blazes, it was hot! Why, Hades itself would be cool by comparison. Local residents were already saying that 1850 would go down in the history books as a real record breaker.

She peered down the road of the small Indiana farm town, longing for a break in the crushing monotony.

The panorama before her could hardly be expected to lift a young girl’s spirits. The town was pitiably small and totally lacking in character. Less than two dozen buildings straddled a dusty, straight-as-an-arrow road, which came from nothing and led to less. Most of the buildings were made of either rough hewn boards or plain old sod. Only a few of the villager’s had bothered to plant flowers or trees. Simply surviving took about all the energy most people had to spare.

The tableau before her might have been a painting, it was so still. Although it was just past midday, in this heat no one, human nor animal, appeared to be capable of stirring. Now and then Shinonn could hear the voices of men in the saloon down the way, otherwise, only the buzzing of insects broke the unremitting silence.

This stinking town’s got to be the most boring place on earth, she thought in disgust.

Gazing off into the distance, down the endless track which led from the village, she thought for a moment that she saw a rider coming toward town. Don’t be a dummy, she chided herself. Who in his right mind would come to this godforsaken place? Must be the heat making sun ghosts.

But as she squinted down, straining her eyes against the harsh rays of the sun, she was sure she could see someone riding toward town. Balancing her elbow on the top rail, she rested her chin on the heel of her hand and watched the rider approach.

"Who in their right mind would to come to this miserable excuse for a town in a middle of a heat wave?"

she asked herself aloud. Talking to herself had become somewhat of a habit lately, one she allowed she could be forgiven, considering the fact that she spent most of her time in her own company. But today the sound of a human voice, even her own, sounded out of place in the deadly stillness.

Glancing once more over the town that spread before her, Shinonn could see nothing that could possibly interest a newcomer. Yes sir, if she was that man, she would just keep right on riding - right through this miserable place and on down the road ‘till she came to something worth seeing.

But the rider did not pass through. She watched with fascination as his large horse drew nearer and nearer. Finally, pulling the animal to a halt just outside the corral, the man climbed down from the saddle and took his time stretching his lanky frame. Then, removing his hat, he methodically slapped at himself with it in a futile effort to shake off the trail dust that covered him from head to toe. Satisfied that he’d done all he could to freshen his appearance, he peered around the corral, then turned his attention to Shinonn.

"Think you can scare up someone to take care of my horse, little miss? He’s had a long, hot day and needs a good feed and brushing."

"I’ll take care of him for you, mister."

"A little mite of a girl like you tending horses? There ain’t no boys around this town?"

"It’s supposed to be my brother Patrick’s job, but he’s never around when there’s work to be done.

Don’t worry, mister, I’ll do a better job than he would anyway."

"My old buddy here could sure use a new set of shoes." The man affectionately patted the horses sweaty rump. "You got a smithy in this town?"

"Yes, sir, we do. My Da’s the town smithy. You can find him over at the saloon."

The stranger tied the reins to the corral fence. At the same moment that he glanced up at the girl a gust of wind lifted the brim of her battered hat, allowing him a full view of her face.

"Well, if you ain’t a pretty little thing," he said. His voice, strangely soft, had just a hint of a grating quality to it. "Won’t be long before young bucks from miles around start coming to town, pestering you to favor them with one of your sweet little smiles. Tell me, pretty girl, what’ll you do then?" He gave her a teasing smile.

"I guess I’ll just have to start carrying me a big stick to chase ‘em all away with," she answered with a mischievous grin.

The hat brim fell back in place and once again her lovely face was partially hidden from his view. But he would not soon forget the vision of her innocent, unspoiled beauty. It was a face in the stage of transition from childhood to young womanhood. A light dusting of freckles splashed across a finely chiseled nose and feathered out toward already quite prominent cheekbones. Her lips were full, still colored with the healthy glow of youth. Her slightly arched, finely etched brows were as black as her hair, which had been plaited into long, thick braids.

But it was the memory of her eyes that would come to haunt his dreams. A deep, sapphire blue, they were thickly edged with a double row of dark, straight lashes. She was young, so very young, but the expression he saw in those eyes spoke of a maturity beyond her years. There was innocence there, but suffering too. Too much suffering he suspected.

"You think I’m just joshing about those young fellers, but you mark my words, before you know it, they’ll be coming for miles around just to get a glimpse of you. I just might have to come back this way in a few years myself!"

A sudden flush colored Shinonn’s cheeks as she took the rains of the stranger’s horse and lead him into the corral. She couldn’t remember ever having received so much attention from a man, let alone such a handsome one!

He watched her walk away before turning his attention to the saloon. With any luck he’d be in a poker game before the night was out. He flexed his fingers with anticipation.

Experience had taught him that dead-beat towns like this usually sported several men who were only too eager to give their money to a professional gambler such as himself. All he had to do was to look for the loudest braggart and he’d have spotted his mark.

***

Her strong hands went about the task of currying the stranger’s horse automatically as Shinonn let her mind drift back to the man. She allowed herself a secret grin as she remembered his words of praise. She wondered if he really saw those things in her face or if he had just been teasing. How many girls had he said those same words to, she wondered?

She scoffed at her own gullibility. How could she even imagine he had meant what he said? She’d looked in the mirror enough to know what she looked like, just a scrawny, dumb looking kid! But no amount of arguing with herself chased away the secret hope that he had meant every word. Especially when he’d said he might come back again!

She decided that what she liked best about he was his voice. Just thinking about it gave her goose pimples. When he spoke, his tone was deep and slightly gravely, the words seductively soft. They made her feel as if they were reaching out and touching her in ways she had never been touched before. And she had to admit, she found the sensation very pleasant. Oh, yes, very pleasant indeed!

"Shinonn", she scolded herself. "What are you thinking of, mooning over a stranger like some love struck female!" She brushed the horse with firm, hard strokes as she tried to forget what a fool she must have seemed to him.

"Well, he won’t stay long in this godforsaken town anyway", she reminded herself, "so I won’t have to worry about embarrassing myself again. There’s nothing here to keep him, so it’s not likely I’ll be seeing a lot of him, no matter what he thinks of me."

She concentrated on working with the horse, trying to push thoughts of the stranger from her mind.

***

Finished at last with her chores at the stable, Shinonn entered her house through the back door, being careful to wash off the day’s accumulation of dirt before she came into the kitchen.

"Seems to me you’re a mite late, daughter," she heard her mother complain from the next room.

"Da stayed down at the saloon all day, so I had to finish up by myself. I guess he gets extra thirsty on days like this."

"I wouldn’t be criticizing your father, if I was you, young lady. He’s a good man, he is. Just likes a bit of a drink now and again."

"There’s no denying that", Shinonn grumbled to herself as she began the preparations for the evening meal. Her father, a big hearty Irishman had caused the family more than a little trouble over the years with his "bit of a drink".

Unfortunately, Sean Flannery wasn’t what one would call a reliable man. Oh, he could be charming when he had a mind to be and he was skillful at his trade. Folks were always drawn to the big, laughing man. It was this charming Irishman her mother, Rose, had fallen in love with. But his drinking and gambling had stolen his charm from his daughter’s eyes years ago.

Her mother had been in poor health for years and had long ago turned all of her household responsibilities over to her daughter. Her delicate emotional state made it impossible for Rose Flannery to concern herself with the family’s precarious financial status.

Unfortunately, Patrick Flannery, Shinonn’s brother, was turning out to be a chip from the father’s log, showing no more promise of shouldering his load than was Sean. Shinonn had given up looking to her brother for help long ago.

On this particular day, instead of working at the stable, Patrick was off hiding from the law. A week or more ago he had picked a fight with the mercantile owner and beat the poor man senseless. There was still some doubt as to whether the man would ever fully recover from the beating.

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