Authors: Andrea Parnell
Her eyes narrowed slightly. “Won’t you join me?” she asked, signaling the barkeep to wait a moment.
“No, thank you. I’ll stay with whiskey.” Reluctantly the barkeep left, his gaze so intent on Delilah he backed into a customer and got splashed with beer.
Tabor’s eyes hovered on her too. With the grace and refinement of a duchess she sipped her wine. He could easily believe the talk that she was from down-in-the-pocket British aristocracy. As a naval officer he had spent time in England. Only the years of training genteel British girls received in the social arts could account for her elegant manners.
He couldn’t figure Delilah out. That diamond around her throat would keep a good-size estate running a couple of years. That she had so much tied up in the diamonds dispelled the theory she was in need. She was a riddle, all right, a beautiful, tempting one. A grin manifested itself on his lips as he recalled he had always liked a good riddle.
He contemplated her even more inquisitively. That red hair glowed like hot coals against her pale skin. The deep color did battle with the brilliant blue eyes. A woman with looks like that needed nothing more to have what she wanted in life. Again he came to why. Why was Delilah playing a saloon in Yuba City and a dozen towns like it?
Delilah demurely diverted her eyes from Tabor for a moment, then glanced back at him. “It occurs to me, Mr. Stanton, that you may be wondering how I happen to know your name.”
She was a fine actress. He could almost swear she had managed a blush. “You are correct, ma’am,” he said, even more convinced he would enjoy solving this puzzle.
“I pride myself on being a forthright woman,” she said softly. “You caught my eye during the show. I had someone ask questions to satisfy my curiosity. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” he replied, feeling a touch of amusement. To his knowledge the only one around who knew his name was the hotel desk clerk. He had told the bespectacled clerk he was in town on business. If Delilah’s game was casing for the wealthiest man in the audience, she had made a serious mistake tonight. Tabor grinned. He couldn’t see the point in telling her that, though. “Fortunate for me that I got a table up close,” he drawled.
“Fortunate for both of us, Mr. Stanton.” Her lashes swept down in coquettish fashion. “This is a lonely life for a woman. I don’t like spending my evenings alone.”
“Ma’am.” His grin turned devilish. “I can’t imagine you spend many of them alone.”
Her smile faded a little. What was the matter with him? Any other man would be fawning all over her by now. Men, she’d found, were incredibly easy to deceive. She supposed it never occurred to them they could be outsmarted by a woman. Tabor Stanton, however, looked as if his smoky eyes hid laughter. Well, she knew how to fix that.
Ever so gently she touched the back of his hand with her fingertips. “Too many, Mr. Stanton,” she whispered. “I hope this won’t be one of them.”
“Oh no, ma’am.” His flesh heated under that simple touch even though he knew it had been deliberate. Delilah, he remembered from his Sunday-school days, delighted in finding a man’s weaknesses. He was quickly developing a few new ones for this Delilah. “I can’t see any reason it should be,” he told her.
* * *
“Dinah, what in heaven’s name made you do such a thing?” Delilah paced around Dinah’s bed.
“I didn’t know anyone would attack me,” Dinah sobbed. “I just wanted them to like me as much as they do you. Hardly anybody misbehaves when you’re onstage. And if someone does, the rest of the crowd tosses him out.” She stopped to blow her nose. “They all laughed and treated me like a—”
“Don’t say it. Don’t think about it.” Delilah stopped her pacing and sat at Dinah’s bedside. “You have to realize those men were half-drunk. They thought you were really an Indian girl. Men don’t think they have to be polite to Indian girls.”
“I want to go home,” Dinah whimpered.
“We will go, precious. In the morning.”
“What about the man you found here?”
Delilah looked surprised. She hadn’t mentioned finding Stanton. Loo must have. A terrible pain filled her heart. She
made a mistake bringing Dinah along. Dinah was too young and too vulnerable to be exposed to this life.
The muscles in her throat tightening, she answered Dinah’s question. “Don’t worry about him. What I have in mind won’t delay us. By tomorrow he’ll wish he’d never set foot in Yuba City.”
Delilah said good night and, not wanting Dinah to be alone, sent Loo in to stay with her. She had an idea she was sure would work. She was sure, too, that she could handle Stanton easily enough.
“Seth, Todd,” she said. “We’ll follow the same plan. Serve dinner, then see we’re not disturbed. Have the coach ready to leave at dawn.”
The men agreed, asked a few questions about the details, then set about doing as she’d asked. Meanwhile Delilah hurriedly arranged the dinner table and lit the candles in her room.
* * *
An hour. Tabor watched the pendulum swing inside the clock in the hotel lobby. Why did a woman need an hour to get dressed to be undressed? A courtesan’s trick? His look of annoyance eased into a smile. Maybe she knew what she was doing. Waiting wasn’t cooling his fever any.
At two minutes until midnight he put on his hat and mounted the stairs. There wasn’t any mistaking Delilah’s room. The two dandies from her show stood like sentries on either side of the threshold, now sporting tooled black leather holsters and pearl-handled pistols. Very pretty. He wondered if either of them could shoot.
“Hey!” he called before they had him in view. Two hands zoomed toward leather, respectably fast. So the men were more than decoration. “Easy,” Tabor called, remembering he’d left his hardware in his room. He stepped through the alcove and into the hall. “It’s me, Stanton. I’m expected.”
“Sorry, Mr. Stanton,” Seth said, relaxing. “We don’t take chances with Miss Delilah.”
“No, I don’t imagine the hired help does,” Tabor mumbled under his breath as Todd tapped the door and announced him.
“Send the gentleman in, Todd,” Delilah’s silvery voice called.
Tabor found himself in a candlelit room potent with the essence of spicy perfume. There was a table set for two, champagne, a canopy bed lined with rose-colored satin, everything a man might dream about, except Delilah.
“I’ll be a minute, Mr. Stanton.” The voice drifted out from behind a clothes-laden dressing screen. “I had trouble making up my mind about which gown to wear.”
Tabor smiled lazily. “You shouldn’t have gone to any trouble. I’m certain to like anything you have on.”
“That’s sweet of you, Mr. Stanton.” Her laughter trilled. “But when I’m dressing for a special occasion, I like to be sure everything is exactly right.”
She stepped from behind the screen wearing a dress of pale pink overlaid with black lace. The effect, at first glance, was that black lace was all she wore. The sight almost took his breath. She was perfection, skin white as a winter moon, sapphire eyes full of secrets, and the hair—he thought it was the hair that beguiled him most. It glowed like a fiery sunset. She’d loosened a strand and let it fall over one shoulder. Did she know how much he wanted his hands in that hair? How much he wanted to bury his face in it?
He knew what she had been saying downstairs. Her life didn’t allow time for the pre-mating rituals. She had to sidestep them. Of course she would want what semblance of it could be fitted into a night, the civilized dinner, conversation. He didn’t mind. Those things, too, heightened the anticipation. Only the way his body was reacting just to the sight of Delilah, he wasn’t sure he could be civilized for long.
“Good evening, Miss Delilah,” he said, forcing smoothness into his voice.
Smiling, he removed his hat. As he did, the silver medallion on the band flashed with the light of a candle. Delilah saw it and gasped. Suddenly weak-legged, she caught hold of the table to steady herself. For an instant everything in the room turned black and she was once again a young girl surrounded by riders. The medallion and another like it shone from the stirrups of one of those riders. A man named Stanton.
Stanton had started to get off his horse and help. But his noble thought had been quickly crushed. She wondered if he had any regrets. If he even remembered what he had done that night.
“Ma’am? Delilah?” Seeing the color wash out of her face, Tabor started toward her. “Anything wrong?”
“No. N-not really,” she stuttered. “I...I twisted my ankle. I’m fine now.”
“Here. Sit down.” Before she could resist, he helped her to a brocade-covered settee and insisted she get off her feet. “Let me have a look.”
“Oh no. Really. It doesn’t hurt now.”
But he was kneeling before her and gently massaging one ankle. Tiny shock waves started through her.
“Not that one,” she said, snatching her foot away. It was a useless defense. He immediately set about massaging the other ankle, with exactly the same result.
“Better?” he asked. Black silk stockings. Trim ankles. Curvy calves. Pink satin slippers. The hour’s wait would be worthwhile. He’d enjoy peeling off the silk and satin and lace.
“Much better.” Wanting to break the physical contact, Delilah got hurriedly to her feet, but immediately found herself swept into Tabor Stanton’s arms.
“Good,” he said, his lips muffling her objections. The kiss, brief but thorough, stunned her and sent unwarranted pleasure spiraling through her body. For a few seconds afterward Delilah stood speechless.
The first words to come back surprised both her and Stanton. “You low-lyin’ side...” She stopped short, her eyes incredibly wide. What was she saying? She could ruin everything. Delilah quickly turned her back so he couldn’t see the confusion registered on her face. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stanton.” It galled her to pretend politeness, but she didn’t want him losing interest so soon. She softened her voice. “I’m not accustomed to a man being so forward.”
Tabor arched a brow.
Something a boomtown woman might say, but from the well-bred Delilah, more of the puzzle. “I owe the apology, ma’am,” he drawled. “Guess I misunderstood your invitation.”
She kept her back to him, completely missing the disarming grin on his face. His words were right but the tone lacked conviction. The arrogant bastard. He thought she was nothing more than a well-dressed whore. Incensed, she braced herself to remain calm, swearing the mistake would cost him.
Eyes twinkling, and with a new hold on her composure, Delilah looked over her shoulder at Tabor. “Maybe not, Mr. Stanton,” she cooed. “A lady needs a little time to make up her mind about a man, a little time to anticipate. Let’s see how we both feel later in the evening.”
Tabor dropped a hand on her shoulder. The skin was warm and smooth. He turned her around. The lady liked games. Fine. He supposed it affronted her dignity to fall into a man’s arms without a few preliminaries. Damn, she was good to look at! A magnificent woman. Full breasts almost spilling out of her dress, a waist he could reach around, eyes that were hard to look away from. The lips had been soft and sweet. Maybe he could wait—a while.
Heat waves started where his hand rested. She felt a tiny shudder, not of revulsion but of enjoyment. This was inexcusable, to feel anything resembling excitement from this man’s touch. She abhorred the thought of it. She couldn’t let herself be distracted just because he had a handsome face. That medallion on his hat reminded her he was a man without courage or conviction, a man with a hollow heart.
She breathed in a deep breath. Self-command was imperative. “Some champagne, Mr. Stanton,” she said smoothly.
“Call me Tabor, please. Formalities have always been a nuisance. May I?” He offered to open the bottle. When the cork popped and a stream of foam shot into the air, they laughed together. Before much of the champagne was lost, Delilah got the glasses.
“Ummm. This is good.” She sipped contentedly. “I adore champagne. Do you, Tabor?”
He nodded. “Mostly bubbles. But it’ll do.”
When Seth knocked and said he had the supper tray, Delilah was still sipping her first glass, Tabor, at Delilah’s prompting, his third.
Halfway through the meal Delilah realized Tabor was staring at her in a peculiar way. Those intense gray eyes made her edgy. A slow flutter of panic started down in her stomach. He couldn’t possibly suspect...No. It had to be something else. She gathered courage and spoke. “Is something bothering you, Tabor?”
Tabor shook his head. “Not a thing.” Without warning he clasped the hand she rested on the table, finding it warm but slightly shaky. “I was just sitting here wondering how you tell a beautiful woman she’s beautiful in a way she hasn’t heard a hundred times before.”
Delilah sighed and relaxed a bit. Her smile was purely theatrical. “You’ve done just that, Tabor.” She wrapped her fingers around his hand and squeezed. “Thank you,” she said.
Silently she congratulated herself. He wasn’t so different after all. He wanted her. A man in that condition was like a rutting deer, blind to everything but his lust. The fact that he had stirred her a little only made her angry. Tabor Stanton would topple like the others. She would enjoy watching him fall.
Seth came in later to take the supper dishes. When the door clicked shut behind him, Delilah turned her charm on Tabor full force.
“It is warm in here isn’t it?” She lifted the curls from her neck and fanned herself with a silk Japanese fan. “I wonder if you’d pour me another glass of champagne? It does make me feel cooler.” Tabor complied. When he handed her the glass, she looked up at him with wide blue eyes. “Do you play poker, Tabor?”
“I’ve played a few games.” The long months at sea, he’d occupied many hours playing poker and had gained an expertise that kept his fellow officers low on funds most of the time.
“I find a few hands relaxing after dinner,” she said innocently. “Would you indulge me?” The long reddish lashes swept her cheeks. “I promise to make it worth your while.”
His desire for her intensified. “I like the stakes,” he responded.