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Mallery Susan

Wild Hearts

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Chapter Two

Alethea hated indecision more than anything else. A person should pick a direction and commit to it. But in the past ten minutes, she had started to go down to dinner three times, only to make it as far as the stairs and then return to her room.

It was all that man’s fault. That Zeke Titan—telling her he would have dinner with her. As if it was his decision to make. Typical man, she thought, pacing the length of her room. He had no right to force himself on her. No doubt he assumed that she was grateful for his company and any attentions that might follow.

Oh, she knew all about Zeke Titan. The ladies in town had a fondness for gossip, and Zeke was their favorite topic. She’d heard about how his father had run off, leaving his wife and son to fend for themselves. That Zeke had worked odd jobs as a small boy, to help support his mother, who was frequently ill. When she’d died, he’d been barely sixteen, with no family, no money and no future. She’d been told how a single card had changed his fortunes.

Apparently he had used his winnings to buy land and invest in businesses. Through extraordinary luck or a wisdom that went far beyond his years, he’d become one of the richest, most successful men in town by the time he was twenty.

Which was all to his credit, she thought, crossing to the door and pulling it open, then closing it. But there was more to Zeke Titan than his wealth. He had a reputation. Those conquests were only spoken about in whispers, but there was plenty to say. His favorite prey seemed to be schoolteachers. Not one had escaped his masculine clutches, so she knew his offer to share dinner was only the beginning.

Telling herself she was more than prepared for the challenge he offered was one thing. But to know that everyone would be watching, speculating on his success or failure, was another.

Alethea had taken the teaching job in Titanville to escape the oppressive dictates of her Baltimore family. Her mother had barely waited nine months after Wesley’s untimely death to hint that Alethea should consider remarrying. Both of her sisters wanted her to come live with them. Supposedly for her own good, but really so she would take care of their children. Only her father, a kind and generous man, had seen past his own wishes to consider hers. He’d encouraged her to go west and find a life that could truly make her happy.

In the six months she’d been here, she had grown to love the small town of Titanville. She had friends, meaningful employment and the promise of a house in another half year. She’d never had a house of her own and looked forward to the prospect. All of which could be ruined by a man with a reputation.

Alethea drew in a breath and raised her head. She had never been one to hide from any challenge, and she refused to let one man keep her trapped in her room. She would go to dinner, and should Zeke Titan join her, she would endure his company as best she could. If he thought he could use his charm and good looks to seduce her, he was sadly mistaken.

She walked out of her room, down the stairs and into the dining room. There were the usual diners in place. A few elderly widowers looking for a tasty meal, one or two traveling businessmen. Her customary table was in the back corner, by a window. It gave her plenty of light in the morning so she could review her lessons for the day. At night, the pulled curtains shut out the winter chill.

Tonight the table had been set for two. A small vase held two roses, an uncommon flower for this time of year.

Alethea narrowed her gaze at the intimate setting. Mr. Titan had been busy, she thought. Did he really think she could be so easily won? She was not a young innocent, ready to be seduced by the charms of an overly confident man.

But Mr. Titan would discover that for himself, she thought with satisfaction as she walked to the table and sat down.

Not two minutes later, Zeke entered the dining room and walked toward her. He was tall and dark-haired, with handsome features. His clothes were well-cut and suited him. He moved with the ease of a confident man.

“Mrs. Harbaugh,” he said, nodding his head. “May I join you?”

“Why ask now? You’ve already presumed with the place setting. Have you ordered my food, as well? Shall you cut my meat and hold my cup while I sip?”

Zeke surprised her by laughing. “I had not thought to do either, but if it would make you happy, I will.”

“It would not.” She had to work to keep her tone frosty. There was something very pleasing about the man’s smile. But if her lips wished to betray her, her mind would not.

He pulled out the chair opposite hers and sat. She was aware of the other diners watching them, but she ignored the stares.

“I hear we are to have roast beef tonight,” he said with a smile. “Mary makes the best roast beef in the state.”


“The cook here at the hotel.”

“Oh.” Alethea had not thought to venture into the kitchen to speak to the chef, although she had sent her compliments after many a meal. “She is excellent.”

“Long before I lived here I would sneak into the kitchen and steal cooling biscuits and pieces of cake. Mary caught me one day. I was maybe ten or eleven. She was so angry, I thought she would skin me right there and serve me for supper.” His smile broadened. “I started to cry. Humiliation beyond measure for a boy that age, I assure you. Mary accepted my apology. Looking back, I suppose she knew who I was and how little food there was at home. She began preparing meals for me. We’ve been friends ever since.”

Alethea didn’t know what to say. She’d never met a man who admitted to being friends with a cook. The kitchen was a place few men ventured.

A young woman approached and set a tray on the table. There was a bottle of wine, an opener and two glasses.

“If your plan is to get me drunk,” Alethea said when the server had left, “I am beyond disappointed.”

“My plan would be much more subtle than that. Fear not. I have spent the past few months in New York and Boston on business. I had the opportunity to taste this first-rate wine at a dinner and bought two cases for myself. Would you do me the honor of sharing some with me?”

A gracious invitation, to be sure. She nodded, knowing there was no polite way to refuse, but she would be very careful with the wine.

“What business took you away from here?” she asked.

He opened the bottle, then poured them each a small amount. “I have shipping concerns, ownership in a railroad, partnership in several large mercantiles in both cities.”

“Varied interests.

” Remarkable interests, she thought. The potential for financial gain didn’t interest her as much as the variety. What would it be like to enjoy such success? To be able to point at a store or an office and know that one had produced it from nothing?

“I enjoy a challenge,” he said, staring deeply into her eyes.

Without meaning to, she laughed. “Please, sir. May we suspend the seduction until after the meal? I find myself hungry for Mary’s roast beef.”

Zeke didn’t seem the least bit offended by her question. He leaned back in his chair and picked up his wine. “That obvious?”

“Some of it is your reputation.”

The young woman reappeared with two bowls of soup. She set them down, then gazed longingly at Zeke. He dismissed her with a brief, “Thank you, Ella.”

Alethea watched the young woman go. “Another conquest?”

He frowned. “Never. She’s too young and has family here.”

“Is your concern that her family would come after you or that you wouldn’t want to shame her in front of them?”

“My concern is mostly her age, and her standing in the community.”

“So there are rules?”

That slow, easy smile emerged again. “There are always rules, Mrs. Harbaugh. Or may I call you Alethea?”

“You may not.”

He laughed. “What if I can tell you your name comes from a Greek word meaning truth?”

“Impressive,” she admitted. “You speak Greek?”

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