Authors: Pamela Nowak
Elizabeth disappeared into the large walk-in closet. Creaking trunk hinges and sounds of rustling fabric filled the silence. She swore quietly then emerged with a deep indigo watered silk gown. Unlike most of the other dresses, its high-necked bodice was bare of the irritating trimmings Sarah so disliked. No complicated frills interfered with the gown’s simplicity. A touch of lace, a box pleat at the bottom, and the draped bustle were the only decorations.
“Half-mourning garb, definitely the most modest, unadorned thing I own.”
Sarah eyed the dress, reluctant yet attracted. Despite the deep hue and conservative styling, the gown was elegant. It bespoke quality, gentility, respectability. She nodded her assent.
“Then put it on, my dear, and we’ll see what needs to be adjusted.” She tossed the gown to Sarah and reached for a paper of pins.
Sarah gathered up the dress and headed toward the folding screen at the corner of the room. “One dinner dress solved,” she announced, “and with no hint of impropriety. Just let anyone say that I am anything but above reproach.”
* * * * *
By the time Friday evening arrived, Sarah had endured a week of bothersome suggestive messages and she was more than ready for the diversion of a dinner party. She crossed Elizabeth’s grand front porch and rapped on the polished mahogany door.
A uniformed butler appeared and nodded to her with stiff formality. “Madam?” he queried, extending his palm.
Sarah handed the man her invitation, her name scrawled across it in Elizabeth’s firm hand.
“Ah, Miss Donovan. Do come in.” The butler stepped back, pulling the carved door wide open.
She stepped into the elegant foyer and waited for the servant to take her wrap. Modern gaslights lit the house, each creating a warm circle of light to beckon guests down the hall. The butler took her cape and invited her to follow him through a set of sliding doors into the front parlor. Across the room, Elizabeth wiggled her fingers in greeting.
Sarah’s gaze swept the room. Mrs. Anderson, conversing with an elegant matron, brushed her hands down her worn Sunday dress and smiled in recognition. Bill Byers stood amid a well-heeled group of businessmen, all of them in tense discussion. Ladies in every shade and shape filled the room, gracing the arms of their husbands. All in all, the committee appeared to have grown.
She maneuvered her way through the crowd, exchanging pleasantries with those she knew, until she neared Elizabeth.
all these people?” she whispered.
“People we need, dear. Brandy? Or are you opting for a more conservative sherry tonight?”
“Ha ha. It’s been a long week of watching every word for hidden, unintentional meanings. I’d like to let my guard down a bit, but …”
“Well, unless it’s lemonade, you’re damned either way.”
“Here, have a drink, quit worrying, and get your bearings. Over there, we have the mayor and his wife. He’s not technically on the committee, but we’ll need his support. Lavinia Morgan, president of the local suffrage chapter insisted on attending. Watch her, dear. She rules the chapter like a queen bee, and she can be vicious when crossed. She also boards at the same rooming house as Frank Bates and is quite a gossip. Frank trails her like a sick puppy.”
“Frank Bates and a suffragist?”
Elizabeth nodded and leaned toward Sarah’s ear. “Frank’s so besotted with her that he wouldn’t care if she was an ax murderer.”
Sarah laughed, then followed Elizabeth’s gaze as she further scanned the room. “You recognized Lucy Anderson from the council meeting? She’s joined the suffrage movement, is a mother of six, and owns three dogs. She rounds out the female viewpoint. Bill persuaded some of the leading businessmen to join us.” She smiled at Bill’s group and blew her husband a kiss. “We also have the policeman in charge of the bounty system. All in all, just a few more people.” She pointed out a couple more notables then excused herself to welcome new guests.
Elizabeth flowed through the room, commanding attention, garnering it with both her elegance and her presence. Men nodded in appreciation and women chatted purposefully with her. Though Sarah hated to admit it, it was obvious that femininity definitely wasn’t holding Elizabeth back.
Sarah smiled at the realization, then searched the room for the police department’s bounty officer. It would be good to find out his views before the meeting began in earnest. Spotting his white head, she moved toward library only to have the mayor engage the policeman first. She stalled just inside the open door, reluctant to interrupt.
“Looking for someone?” Daniel’s strong voice queried.
Sarah glanced to the side. Daniel stood, lounging against a black leather side chair, a near-empty glass of brandy in his hand. He raised his eyebrows and smiled, for once relaxed.
“Your committee seems to have multiplied,” she commented.
“So it seems. I half expected it to. Besides, I have a hunch it’s Elizabeth’s committee. I’m just a figure head.”
“She does tend to dominate, doesn’t she?”
“As if you don’t.” Daniel’s hazel eyes twinkled, taking her by surprise.
A smile tugged at Sarah’s mouth. “Why, Daniel, whatever do you mean?”
He shrugged, the movement hinting at the silent strength lying beneath his brown serge jacket. “You manage to get things accomplished when you want to.”
“I make my own way.”
“That you do,” he teased.
The comment sparked between them, provocative in its simplicity. Lord, the man was appealing when he let down his guard. Sarah’s gaze drifted to the mayor and policeman just outside the library door, and she stiffened. Bates would have a field day if he got wind that she was flirting with the committee chairman.
She glanced back at Daniel and armed herself against his charms. “And you find something wrong with that, do you?”
“Not wrong, just unexpected.” He pulled himself upright and drained the last of his brandy. “Look, Sarah, I’m trying not to argue with you tonight. Do you have to take offense at everything I say?”
“You usually mean offense with everything you say,” she snapped, at once regretting her tone.
“My, what wit,” he countered, ignoring her barb.
She arched an eyebrow at him. “Is that a sense of humor hiding in there?”
“It might be. I think a second snifter of brandy might be in order before I answer that.”
“Are you sure that would be proper?”
“No, I’m not. But I’m one glass past proper right now and determined not to find my way back there for the rest of the night.” He let the comment drop then turned and left the room.
* * * * *
Daniel nodded attentively to his dinner partner, but his gaze slid catty-corner across the square table to where Sarah sat engrossed in conversation with the bounty officer. Damn the woman for bewitching him. He’d anticipated the night with an uneasy eagerness, imagining how she’d look, all the while dreading the temptation she was sure to stir.
The deep indigo of her gown shaded her violet eyes to a dark, dusky hue and magnified the highlights in her golden hair. Mounded high on her head, it invited touching and drew attention to the hint of neck just visible above the high lace of the dress. Devoid of any other frills, the dress molded her shapely body. She lifted an escargot to her mouth with a dainty fork, full lips accepting it, savoring it. She closed her eyes in appreciation. Daniel felt his loins tighten.
What the hell am I doing?
Maybe his plan to savor the evening hadn’t been such a good idea after all.
He set down his fork and reached for a glass of water.
His code of conduct contained little guidance on how to behave at dinner parties. Instinct told him to retain his professional demeanor. Common sense screamed that such formalities didn’t apply. Elizabeth had moved the dinner from the realm of business to a social event, after all. Tonight, he would remain loose, he would experience, he would not let his father’s rules interfere with his enjoyment.
And so he sat with a snail in his mouth and a stiff cock.
Good God, but he needed another drink.
Efficient waiters cleared the appetizers and brought the next course while he forced himself to pull his thoughts away from Sarah. He needed to begin discussion of the issue at hand. He glanced across the table at her, caught a question in her eyes, ignored it, and cleared his throat.
“Fellow committee members, I beg your attention, please.”
Conversation dwindled as attention shifted. Sarah smiled and nodded encouragement.
“While I hate to interrupt, Elizabeth has given us rein to forego proper etiquette and focus our dinner discussion on the business at hand, namely dogs. Our committee has been expanded so that we can have a more rounded approach to the problem. I think it would be pertinent to hear from Officer Jenkins, Mrs. Anderson, and some of the shop owners who have been affected most. Once we’ve heard about the situation, I’d like us to generate ideas. We are not here to argue the merits of those ideas. Once we’ve all been heard, we’ll narrow the list and select the most practical ideas for further discussion. Who would like to start?”
Down the table, Jenkins raised his hand. Daniel nodded to him and settled back into his chair as the meeting moved on. He’d done it. He had now only to moderate as necessary and let the others have their voices. He reached for his glass of wine and stretched his legs out under the table.
Sarah tipped her own glass of wine at him in salute.
The woman ran hot and cold tonight. At times he swore she hated him, then she opened up with warmth only to shutter herself up again. Did she want to flirt or to argue?
And why in the world did he care? Mary had never once flirted with him, not in all the years of growing up together or during their marriage. She’d been refined, not one to stir up dangerous thoughts and images like Sarah seemed to do with every breath she took.
He shook her from his mind and tried to concentrate on the meeting. The main course slid into dessert as waiters placed plates of grapes and cheeses, bowls of ripe strawberries and confectioner's sugar on the table. Speakers moved on to Mrs. Anderson, who made a few valid points before sliding into a soliloquy on her six children.
Sarah’s mouth grew broad with restrained humor and she winked at Daniel, one violet eye closing beneath thick blond eyelashes.
A smile tugged at his own lips. Humorous as Mrs. Anderson’s tales were, it was time to move on. He straightened and tried to look official. “Thank you, Mrs. Anderson. Are we ready to list ideas?”
At the far and of the large table, Elizabeth stood and smiled to her guests. “I would be delighted to list our ideas. If we’d like to let things stew for a while, give more thought to the solutions, I’m sure Bill could print the list up at the newspaper. Then, we could all look things over and reconvene to discuss the ideas in week or so.”
Several heads nodded in assent.
“Then we have just one task remaining as we finish dessert,” Daniel said. “I’ll turn things over to Elizabeth so she can keep us from getting ahead of her pen.”
Ideas were offered from several committee members. Daniel listened, sliding back to the relaxed slouch, an unusual position for him, but oddly comfortable. His stretched-out legs bumped against Sarah’s skirts and her eyes widened at the touch. He waited, gauging her reaction.
Her breath caught, then she relaxed, her legs still in place under the table, touching his. She peered at him, blinked wordlessly, and picked at the food on her plate. She fingered a deep red berry, vivid against the white of the china, then leaned forward and dipped it into the bowl of sugar.
She brought the fruit to her mouth, lips parting in expectation, and bit into it. Appreciation lit her face. She chewed, savoring the berry, then took a second bite.
Daniel’s heart tightened.
Good God, watching her eat food is one of the most sensual things I’ve ever seen.
The thought jolted him and he reached for his wine.
His leg pressed against hers and she peered at him, realization filling her deep violet eyes and shifting across her face like a shadow. Her lips parted, the remains of the strawberry suspended in her fingers as she inhaled. Her leg pressed back, a fleeting response, then she pulled away, set the strawberry on her plate, and turned her attention from him.
* * * * *
The hunger in Daniel’s eyes shook Sarah to her core. The remainder of dinner passed in a blur. She quietly excused herself and slid into the dark recesses of the butler’s pantry.
Her heart thumped audibly in the small space.
When had Daniel Petterman shifted from a narrow minded, self-righteous annoyance to the incredibly attractive man with smoldering eyes and a drop of red wine clinging to his upper lip like an invitation. Lord, she’d never left a room for lack of control in her entire life, yet here she was hiding in the pantry. Would she have run if her fears about Frank Bates and his rumors hadn’t intruded?
A creaking door broke the silence. Sarah straightened, smoothed her dress, and tried to appear as though she were casually searching for something in particular.
“Sarah?” Daniel’s clear voice penetrated the closeness. His thick brown hair looked rumpled, as if he had run his hand through it. He looked about as unsettled as she felt. “Are you all right?”
She pasted a bright smile on her face. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
He sighed. “I think perhaps I was out of line earlier. Too much wine and brandy, I suppose.” He looked at his feet, then at her.
“I don’t know what you’re—”
“Yes you do.” He moved toward her, his eyes searching, piercing. “You’re a lousy liar, Sarah.”
She backed against the cupboard and drew a shaky breath. “All right, I do. I was just trying to give you a way out, save us both a little embarrassment.” She knew she needed to stay calm, in control, but her knees felt weak.
Daniel moved closer, leaning toward her until his hands rested on the small counter behind her. He smelled of mingled scents, soap and cedar, red wine and strawberries. His muscled shoulders bunched under the brown suit jacket.