BLACK-TIE SEDUCTION, Book 1 Texas Cattleman's Club: The
From the diary of Jessamine Golden
July 4th, 1905
Today, my life changed. It came like a bolt out of the blue. Like a lightning strike in the midst of a sunset storm or the fireworks lighting up the sky during tonight’s celebration of our country’s independence. I’m not sure how else to describe what happened to me when I first set eyes on Brad Webster – or how to describe the clash of wills when he drew me aside and told me how things were going to be.
I run a clean town, he said. I don’t want any trouble from you.
He’d looked stern and angry and so very serious when he talked to me. And yet, he didn’t arrest me, this man who walks on the opposite side of the path that fate has set for me.
Sheriff Brad Webster. Just writing his name makes my heart kick around inside my chest like a string of wild ponies. Saying it out loud makes my fingers tremble and my face flush hot and sends strange warm flames licking through my belly. You’d think I’d been smoking locoweed. And it is loco for me to be so obsessed by him.
But despite his anger at me, he is the most beautiful man … if a man can be called beautiful. Years ago, my daddy and I were riding strays and we came upon this herd of wild mustangs. The stallion was big and ink black and oh, he was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Sleek and muscled, tall and strong. One look in that big guy’s eyes and you knew he was proud and brave and masterful.
That’s what I thought when I saw the good sheriff. Like that wild stallion, he is proud and brave … and masterful. His hair is ink black. His eyes are the most fascinating Texas sky blue. And tall. Lordy, is that man tall but he’s no beanpole. Oh no. He’s got the build of a workingman.
And he’s a man who believes in duty.
Duty. His duty is why I must stop carrying on about him so. Brad Webster wears a badge that says he’s the law. And everything about the way he carries himself says he is as loyal to the law he has sworn to uphold, as I am loyal to the cause that has taken me on the wrong side of it.
Dear, dear diary. Is there anything in life that is fair? Why does everything have to be so hard?
I have met a man who makes me want to forget what drove me to a life of crime. And yet this man, this amazing, beautiful man, may be the one to not only end my quest, he may, in the name of the law, be forced to end my very life – or I may be forced to end his.
One man’s trash. Another man’s treasure.
The old cliché wound around inside Christine Travers’ head like a coil of barbwire as she stared, disbelieving, at the treasure she’d just discovered.
Her breath stalled. Her heart beat so fast and so hard she was afraid she might pass out. Right here. Right smack in the middle of a good portion of the upper crust residents of Royal, Texas, and the Texas Cattleman’s Club members who had staged tonight’s fundraising auction to benefit Royal’s 125th Anniversary bash.
Not good form any way you sliced it. And the last thing she would ever want to do was bring attention to herself – for any reason.
Okay, Christine. Settle down. Take a deep breath. Another.
Steadier now, with her fingers only marginally tingling, she glanced around the crowded auction house to see if anyone was watching her with odd expressions – a sure sign she’d either screamed out loud, jumped up and down or done something equally ridiculous and brought unwanted attention to herself. And to her amazing find.
A relieved sigh eddied out when no one seemed to notice her excitement. Almost everyone who had turned out for the fundraiser benefiting Royal’s upcoming anniversary celebration was busy browsing. Well, almost everyone.
Some of the Cattleman’s Club members, including Jacob Thorne, she’d noticed with dismay, were laughing and joking by the bar across the room.
Why did he have to be here?
Christine made it a point to avoid Jacob Thorne whenever their paths crossed. If he spotted her tonight, she had no doubt that true to form, he’d make it his personal mission to give her ten different kinds of grief. What she’d ever done to deserve his teasing and goading – other than help save his miserable life, she thought with a flare of anger – was beyond her.
Well, she wasn’t going to think about him tonight. She had another, meatier, much more exciting matter to attend to. Among the rows and rows of tables set up and filled with items for potential bidders to inspect to help them decide if they wanted to make a bid, Christine had found buried treasure – or the next best thing to it.
The good folks of Royal had dug deep into their basements and attics to come up with items to donate to the auction. There were antique crystal pieces. Complete china sets. Magazines that dated back to the early nineteenth century. Furniture and painstakingly hand-stitched quilts.
And then there were the contents of this box that, according to the notation, came from the late Jonathan Devlin’s attic.
Oh. My. God.
“Is it hot in here?” Christine asked her friend, Alison Lind as she fussed with her plain white blouse that she’d buttoned all the way up to her neck. She’d met Alison at a self-defense class given by Mark Hartman. Mark, like Jacob Thorne, was a member of the infamous Texas Cattleman’s Club – an elite philanthropic organization and men’s club in Royal. Alison worked as Mark’s secretary.
“It’s Texas. It’s July,” Alison said, deadpan. Her dark eyes sparkled in her pretty warm chocolate brown face. While Christine was usually cautious about opening herself up to someone, she’d sensed a kindred spirit in Alison. They’d been fast friends since that first meeting.
“Okay. Rhetorical question,” Christine conceded. “It just seemed extra warm there for a minute.”
Alison gave her friend a look and an, “Uh-huh,” then walked on ahead of Christine when a bolt of red satin caught her eye.
“All right,” Christine whispered to herself and wiped damp palms on her tailored navy slacks. “Get a grip.”
Act cool. Don’t draw attention to yourself or the box. Don’t let on that you may have just discovered what must have appeared to the late Jonathan Devlin’s family, to be nothing more than an old, musty smelling saddlebag. Nothing more than a novelty item someone might want to bid on for their private collection to decorate a bar or a tack room.
Well, they could bid, she thought fiercely, but she was going to leave here with the contents of this box. That’s because she knew something they didn’t. She was ninety-nine point nine percent certain that she knew who the saddlebag had once belonged to.
“What’s got you so fidgety?” Alison asked, wandering back to Christine’s side. She tried to peek into the box.
Christine quickly flipped the lid shut.
“Can you keep a secret?” Christine whispered, cutting a covert glance around her.
Alison frowned. “If the secret is that you’re having a minor manic episode, no, I don’t think so.
The paramedics who treat you will need details.”
Ignoring her friend’s sarcasm, Christine gripped Alison’s arm and pulled her close. She lifted the lid on the box. The smell of old leather and dust seeped into the air. “See this saddle bag?”
“Oh – I get to look inside now?”
Christine pulled a face. “Yes, you get to look inside.”
Still acting wary, Alison did.
“Notice the rose tooled on the cover flap?”
From Alison, she got another slow, skeptical nod.
“The rose is what drew my attention. So I checked inside the bag,” Christine confided in a low voice. “And found a pair of six shooters.
Old six shooters, with roses carved into the ivory handles.”
“And,” Alison said in a leading tone as Christine cast more worried looks around them.
“And there’s also a delicate little purse. Again – old. Rose colored – with what appears to be rose petals inside. Plus,” she went on, huddling up with Alison and whispering, “there’s a map.”
She snatched Alison’s hand back when she started to reach inside the saddlebag. “A map with hearts and roses twining around the edge.”
“Okay. I’ll play along,” Alison said, still frowning like she thought Christine had blown a circuit. “I’m guessing there’s some major significance with all these roses?”
“You don’t know the half of it,” Christine said. “I’m positive these things once belonged to Jessamine Golden.”
When Alison made a ‘who?” face, Christine closed up the box then dragged Alison away from the table and hustled her into the line of people waiting to acquire bidding numbers.
“Jessamine Golden is a legend in Royal,” she explained in a low voice so no one would overhear. “She was an outlaw a hundred years ago who not only stole the heart of the town sheriff, Brad Webster, legend has it that she also stole a huge gold shipment and hid the treasure somewhere in the Royal area. And she loved roses.
“Thanks,” she said absently, when the clerk gave her a paddle with a number on it. She walked Alison to the row of seats lined up in front of the podium where the bidding was already under way.
“Anyway, the rest of the story is that the mayor of Royal back then was Edgar Halifax-“
“Halifax?” Alison interrupted. “Any relation to Gretchen Halifax, our illustrious city councilwoman?”
Gretchen Halifax wasn’t an illustrious anything except in her own mind and both women knew it but Christine didn’t want to get sidetracked with talk about Gretchen. She’d had to deal with Gretchen on the new Edgar Halifax display at the museum and that had been more than enough exposure to the woman.
“Yes, I think Gretchen is some distant relative but the point is, Edgar Halifax and his men were supposedly killed by Jessamine Golden over the stolen gold. There’s also speculation that Jessamine killed the sheriff too because when she disappeared, neither one of them was ever heard from again. And neither was the gold.”
Christine tugged Alison down on the chair beside her, facing the auctioneer. “I think the map in those saddle bags is a map to where Jess hid the gold!” she whispered fiercely.
Alison searched her friend’s face. “All right. Did you, like, eat like an entire bag of chocolate before you came here?”
“I did not eat any chocolate and will you quit looking at me like I’m an alien? I’m serious. You know that I volunteer time at the Royal historical society when I’m not pulling double shifts at the hospital. Well, I do a lot of research there and Jess Golden’s story caught my attention. And Alison, I swear, those have to be Jess’s things in that box that came out of Jonathan Devlin’s attic.”
“Out of Jonathan Devlin’s attic?” Alison shook her head. “Boy, the Devlin’s didn’t waste any time clearing out old Jonathan’s house. He only died a few days ago – they haven’t even buried him yet, have they?”
“Not yet, no. But you know his sister, Opal? A month ago, when Jonathan went into a coma, it was never expected that he’d recover. I guess from the start, there was no brain activity. Anyway, Opal had been going through his house for weeks in anticipation of his death, setting aside things to put up for auction.”
“Gives me warm fuzzies all over thinking about her sorrow over the loss of her brother.”
“Yeah. Opal’s a sentimental and sympathetic soul all right,” she said matching Allison’s sarcasm. “But back to the topic at hand: one of the reasons I’m so convinced these are Jess Golden’s things is that for a very brief time – around 1910 or so – she lived in Jonathan Devlin’s house.”
“Okay,” Alison said carefully but looking like she was a little more on board, “let’s say you’re right. Let’s say those are Jess Golden’s things because she left them in the house when she skeedaddled out of town after she did her dastardly deed. What then?”
“Then I’m going to buy them,” Christine stated emphatically. “For the historical society to put on display in the museum. That box contains priceless historical artifacts – not to mention, it might lead to the gold. What a find it would be for the town.”
“Well, you’d better get your paddle ready, miss super sleuth. They just brought the box to the podium. It’s the next item up for bid.”
* * *
Jake Thorne wasn’t sure what it was about Chrissie Travers that lit his fire, but every time he showed up some place and she was there, it was like some kinetic energy source or something set all his senses on super-charge and he honed in on her like a bear scenting honey.
He propped an elbow on the bar where he stood at the side of the room and got comfortable. Then he just enjoyed the hell out of watching her in typical Prissy Chrissie mode, all stiff and proper and tense, while his mind – already shifting into autopilot – started hatching plots to irritate her. Just a little. Because, man, she was some fun when she was riled.
And he ought to know. He’d spent a month in the Royal hospital five years ago after an oil well fire had knocked him on his ass. Burns hadn’t been the worst of his injuries. The smoke and fire inhalation and the damage to his lungs had been. Chrissie had been his respiratory therapist and once he’d felt human again, he’d found a hundred hot buttons to push on the uptight, serious and tolerate-no-nonsense Chrissie Travers. He was pleased to say that he’d personally pushed at least ninety-nine of them at some time or another in the five years since.
Her bidding paddle shot up in the air. Whoa. What have we here, he wondered when she lifted it above her head. Straight up. No hesitation. As high as she could raise her arm.
Seemed the lady aimed to buy something. Judging by her body language, she meant to have it at any cost.
He watched both Chrissie and the bidding with interest. She cast a flurry of darting looks around her, those big hazel eyes warning off anyone who even looked like they wanted to raise their paddle. Interesting. The bidding was slow and it looked like she was going to get the box of – hell, box of rocks for all he knew – for a song.
Or was she, he asked himself and felt the beginnings of an ornery grin. Just as the auctioneer was about to start a going, going gone with Chrissie as the high bidder, Jake’s paddle seemed to sort of pop up in the air, all of its own accord.
Hum. Looked like he was in the bidding now too.
Chrissie’s head whipped around, her fine blond hair flying around her face, her big hazel eyes snapping with smoke and hell fire as she searched the room for the culprit who dared enter the bidding at this late hour. When her gaze finally landed on him and he acknowledge with a grin and a friendly wave of his paddle that, yeah, he was the one who’d jumped in and spoiled her party, he swore to God lightning zapped out of her ears and shot twin puffs of smoke in its wake.
And when, after a fierce flurry of bidding action between them ended with a gavel rap and a resounding, “Sold!” and Jake was the lucky owner of a cardboard box containing he had no idea what, the look she sent him could have set a forest ablaze.
He touched his fingertips to the brim of his tan Resistol, smiled sweetly and swore he heard a word come out of her mouth that he figured prissy Miss Chrissie had never even heard before, let alone used.
Oh boy. We were gonna have some fun now.
* * *
Christine glared at the man sauntering toward her. Jacob Thorne was wearing what he probably thought was an
aren’t I just as sexy as sin rogue grin that tugged up one corner of his full, mobile lips and dented his incredible dimples. He thought he was something - looking at her like he was God’s greatest gift. Like her heart ought to go pity-pat and she ought to get hot all over basking in the glow of his company like half the women in town did every time he sliced one of his poster boy smiles their way.
Well she was hot, all right. Bonfire hot. And her heart was pounding. Not some loopy, goofy, stutter-step but a jackhammer, piston-pumping, so-mad-she-could-hear-each-staccato-beat-in-her-ears-
and-feel-it-pulse-all-the-way-to-her-toes, pounding. And in that moment, she understood why it sometimes became part of the human condition to react to anger with physical violence.
Not that she’d ever stoop that low. She’d had enough physical violence in her life. But, it didn’t hurt to
think about exactly how deep she could bury the tip of her boot into Jacob Thorne-in-her-side’s shin. And to imagine the swelling and the black and blue marks and his grunt of pain when she did.
“Hey, Chrissie,” he said, all sweet and sugary, in that sexy sandpapery voice of his, dragging her away from her fantasy. “You’re looking mighty fine tonight. Got a little color in your cheeks for a change. Did you finally take some time for yourself and get out in the sun a bit?”
She tilted her head to the side and glared at him. And he had the nerve to try to be cute. Again.
“Oh. Not sun.” He made a big show of acting surprised. “You’re miffed at me, right?
That’s what put that pretty pink in your cheeks.”
For whatever reason, since she’d been his respiratory therapist five years ago when he’d suffered lung damage during an accident when he was fighting an oil well fire, he seemed to make it his personal mission to tease her unmercifully. Like a big overgrown bully. He needed to grow up, that’s what he needed to do. In the meantime, she’d treat him like the kid he was.
“You are so not funny. And you are so not charming.”
She reached out and grabbed Alison’s arm, holding her still when she sensed that her friend was about to slink away and avoid certain fireworks.
“And your good ole boy, awe shucks grin doesn’t cut any sway with me,” she added, never stopping to take a breath. “Now how much do you want for it?” she asked with a clipped nod toward the box he’d tucked under his arm. The box that contained Jessamine Golden’s saddlebag and its treasure trove of goodies. The box that had almost been hers for fifty-five bucks until he’d chimed in with his big money and stole it from her.
He glanced from her to the box. “What’s in here that’s got you so excited?”
She blinked. Then, outraged, blinked again. “You didn’t even know what you were bidding on?”
“Well, no,” he said, lifting a shoulder. “I was just trying to make some extra money for the benefit.”
“You know what?” Alison said, squirming uneasily and apparently sensing a major showdown. “I think I’ll just be going now.”
Christine wrapped her fingers tighter around Alison’s upper arm and held her where she was. “So why didn’t you bid against Ralph Schindler when he was bidding on an antique typewriter? Or Mel Grazier when he bid on a boom box? They’ve got buckets of moldy money. Why did you have to bid against me?”
“Well,” he said, then paused and absently scratched his jaw. “Maybe I figured if you wanted it, it must be something worth having.”
She snorted. “Try again.”
“No really. I’ve always known you to have excellent taste.”
“So … that’s supposed to be an explanation?”
“More like an compliment.”
“More like a crock. You did it just to tick me off.”
“Well,” his dark eyes danced in a tan, handsome face, “there is that.”
The sound that came out of her could only be described as a growl.
“I’ve really got to go,” Alison said and made another break for it.
This time Christine let her go. It wasn’t fair to Alison to make her a party to what could, in all probability, turn out to be a homicide.
“How much do you want for it?” she repeated, only after she was certain she could talk without screeching.
“You want it bad, don’t you, Chrissie?”
Oh, he’d just love to see her rise to that bait. She was not going to give him the satisfaction of acknowledging the sexual innuendo he’d managed to thread through his seemingly innocent question then punctuate with a wicked smile.
“Tell you what,” he said, looking if not smug, at least pleased by whatever idea was brewing in his thick head. “How about we cut us a little deal?”
Cut a deal? She’d trust any deal he made about as far as she could shot put his beefy carcass after she killed him and they hauled her off to jail. Justifiable homicide would be the worst possible charge they could level.
“I can just about imagine any deal you’d initiate. You haven’t changed a bit have you? You’re still selfish and spiteful and as irreverent as a snake oil salesman.”
“And you hold a grudge for a mighty long time, sweet cheeks.”
Oh, yeah. She held a grudge all right. He made it easy.
“Tell you what, just to show you I’m not selfish or spiteful or irreverent,” he said working hard at sounding wounded, “since you want this stuff that badly, I’ll just give it to you.”
She eyed him with unconcealed suspicion. All six plus lean feet of him. She couldn’t help but notice the way his long brown hair curled slightly at the edges giving him a sexy, boyish appeal. Couldn’t help but try to read the thoughts going on behind those summer blue eyes that were always laughing, always teasing, always making her wonder what made him tick.
Well. Not always because she didn’t spend that much time thinking about him. At least, she didn’t do it intentionally. He just sort of sneaked into her thoughts sometimes when she least expected it and caught her off guard.
Like now. Damn, all those wonder boy good looks had sidetracked her again. Made her forget – if only for a second there – that she was mad and he was the reason.
“Okay. What’s the catch?” Skepticism oozed in each word.
“What makes you think there’s a catch?”
“Because I wasn’t born yesterday?”
“There ya go. You’re just as smart as you are pretty.”
“Save the sugar for someone with a sweet tooth.”
He considered her for a moment as if he were thinking about just how badly he wanted to embarrass her. Then he very coolly said, “You can have the box of stuff on one condition. Be my date for Royal’s Anniversary Ball.”
It took a moment for Christine to process his words. When she finally realized what he was suggesting, her mouth dropped open. Nothing came out.
If he’d told her the condition was to strip and go naked then run through the streets proclaiming she was madly in love with him, she’d have been less surprised than she was right now.
And the chances of her agreeing to either one were exactly the same.
“Boy, that got you thinking,” he said with a huge grin. “So, what do you say? How about it?”
He wasn’t serious. He couldn’t be. Never in a million years would Jake Thorne – Texas Cattleman’s Club member and one of the most sought after bachelors in Royal – waste his time with her, not at something as big as the Anniversary Ball. Not when all the eligible socialites and darlings of Royal society were lined up like Miss America candidates waiting for him to select one of them from the ranks as his date for the biggest social event in recent Royal history. Beautiful, wealthy, socially adept women who ran in his circle and would look good on his arm – unlike her, who would like more like a lump of coal than a diamond.
Even though she didn’t want to let it, it stung that he’d play with her this way when they both knew good and well that unless he thought he could find some perverse pleasure humiliating her, that he’d never in a million years include her on his list of possible dates.
This was just too cruel.
“How about you take your condition and put it where the sun don’t shine?”
Then, hating herself for letting him get to her, she turned on her heel and stomped away while his highly amused, “Was it something I said?” trailed her across the room.