Pike's Run, Texas
December 21, 1882
Truly hurried down the boardwalk, keeping her head low against the wind. Mr. Taylor had allowed her to keep the coat, so she was properly covered this time.
She made her way to the hotel, going over the discussion she’d had with Mr. Dawson, the editor of the paper. Mrs. Forrester, owner of Forrester’s Tailoring, had sent her in his direction.
Truly had finally worked up the courage to ask the lady for her help and not only had the kind businesswoman offered her a job as a seamstress, she’d told her that Stephen Dawson might give her a few other ideas. Truly wasn’t much of a sewer, though she could complete needlepoints.
When she’d sat down with Mr. Dawson, she’d explained that all she could really do was host and plan events. His face had broken into a smile, and he’d announced, “Then the owners of the Royal Hotel might surely want to offer you a job.”
She’d been taken aback. The hotel might need some sort of hostess? Even if they did, that didn’t mean they’d hire her. Of course, she’d also have to approach the handsome Mr. Taylor to gain the position. She hoped he didn’t inquire as to why she needed employment.
Nervousness assailed her, but she had no time to dwell on the idea. She had three days left. If this didn’t work, what would she do? She didn’t have the luxury of debate any longer.
With a deep breath, she entered the hotel, lifting her head and deciding to speak to Mr. Taylor right then. But the newcomers in the lobby made her stop short.
“There you are!” her younger sister, Missy, squealed. “We have been all over for you.” Missy threw her arms around Truly’s neck, then pressed a kiss to her cheek. “Oh, you’re frozen.”
Numb with shock, Truly couldn’t reply. But she pulled at Missy’s hold, not wanting her embrace. Not ever again.
“Princess,” her father said, smiling his bright smile, his perfect dimples showing. John Cunningham came toward her, his suit of fine quality, his tan, winter coat reaching to his knees. “We couldn’t leave you alone at Christmas.” As he hugged her, she saw over his shoulder…
He lounged on the counter, a flirtatious gleam in his eyes.
She couldn’t bear it. Something inside her snapped, and she did a half-turn, her gaze colliding with Mr. Taylor’s, who stood behind the registration counter. “Mr. Taylor, might I have a word with you in private?”
If she’d stunned him, it didn’t show. He smiled politely and inclined his head. “This way, Miss Cunningham.”
Without looking at her family, or…Henry, she strode forward, her head high. As she followed the hotel owner, her sister called uncertainly, “Truly?”
But Truly ignored her. She walked into the office situated off to the right of the front desk. The door shut, and she found herself in a room with leather furniture, plush rugs and brass sconces. A desk made of Cherrywood dominated the space, its surface tidy and neatly ordered with a blotter, inkwell and stacked ledgers.
“Have a seat,” Mr. Taylor offered.
She kept her spine rigid as she accepted, perching on the edge of the wingback chair. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, and she tried to cool her fury at the uninvited presence of her family.
Mr. Taylor lowered himself next to her. “I hope you don’t mind me being close. The desk belongs to my father, and I prefer him to use that chair.”
The joking tone startled her. When she looked at him, a twinkling light shone in his eyes. She folded her hands in her lap and managed to say, “I can certainly understand. There’s no reason to give ourselves undue stress.”
She appreciated that he tried for lightness. She took a long, slow cleansing breath. Silence hung between them, though without tension.
He rested easily, propping his elbow on the arm of his chair as he studied her.
She glanced at him, then looked about the room. Where to start. What to say. Right now, all she wanted to do was rage about her family’s cruelty and rudeness.
“We can sit in here until they leave.”
She flinched and met his gaze. “I suppose my upset was evident.”
He shrugged. “Don’t worry about that.”
With another deep exhale, some of her anger left her at his kindness. “Perhaps you’ve wondered why I’m renting a room, and why my stay has been so long.”
“You don’t have to tell me.”
She quirked her mouth at the corner. “But you have wondered.”
He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. A sheepish expression came over his face. “You still don’t have to tell me.”
After several moments of quiet where her thoughts raced and stumbled over each other, she said, “I’d like to say it out loud, if you wouldn’t mind.”
His eyes shone with permission.
She took a deep breath, then said, “My sister, Missy, is…” Pain gripped her, making her throat grow raw. “Well, she’s spoiled and selfish. When she wants something, she gets it.” Truly gulped. “And she decided she wanted Henry Farris.”
Mr. Taylor listened patiently; his posture still easy.
“The trouble was…Henry was my fiancé.”
The statement made Mr. Taylor’s jaw go slack. “Say again?”
Truly lifted her hands in helplessness. “I was engaged. To Henry Farris. I’m sure you saw him.”
Mr. Taylor inclined his head.
“He’s charming. Almost too charming, now that I can see him clearly. He’s beautiful. And unapologetic, which made him seem confident to me, but now I know he has no conscience.” A knife twisted in her heart. And in her back. “When Missy went after him, he, well, I guess he decided she was more his style.”
The lines of Mr. Taylor’s face hardened. “So, he broke it off with you to marry your sister?”
Truly nodded. “It was…the most humiliating thing. I had to help her plan her wedding.” Tears bit, but she squeezed her eyes shut. Once she had control, she looked at Mr. Taylor and continued, “And even worse, my father supported it. He told me that Missy was better suited to him, which he was right, but he had no care for my pain. He told me to be a lady and not show emotion. Which I did, but only to protect myself.
“He wanted me to continue to run his home and social calendar. Mother passed away almost four years ago. After Henry and Missy were married, I carried on. But soon I grew tired of being the object of pity, of laughter. I packed a bag, sold as much as I could, and fled.” She gripped her hands tightly in her lap. “I suppose they’ve been looking for me.” She shook her head. “I can’t imagine why.”
Mr. Taylor lowered his arm, his face still stony. “People can be callous, and they enjoy watching the pain they inflict.”
His explanation only broke her heart even more. “But…why?”
“If I knew, I’d tell you. I have people in my family similar to people in yours.” He shifted in his seat. “They don’t live here anymore. My mother was, is, a tyrant. She made our lives Hell, and several months ago, my father had had enough. He put her on a train and is making her live with her sister until she changes her ways.”
Truly pressed her lips together. “I wish I had the ability to send my family away.”
A slow grin came over Mr. Taylor’s face. “Well, I can do it. Pike’s Run has a boardinghouse, and I can explain that their presence in my hotel is offensive.”
He barely knew her and wanted to protect her. She recalled his tender care as he’d wrapped her in the quilts. She smiled. “While I would love that, I believe I need to face them. I’m not sure of their purpose, but I’m not going home.”
Her time had come. She’d given herself the perfect entrance into the discussion of employment. “However, I must have a position as my funds are running out.” She drew herself up. “Mr. Dawson advised me that you might be in need of someone to host parties and balls for you, and I would like to offer my—”
Mr. Taylor leaned forward, his brow lifting in surprise. “Are you serious?”
His abrupt reaction made her pause, and she couldn’t answer him. Had she done the wrong thing?
“You want to run the events we have here?”
“Well, I, um—”
Her breath strangled in her throat.
“Hell, you’re an angel. A beautiful—” He shook his head. “Thank you. Yes, please. We’re having a Christmas Eve social, and while it’s all planned out, if you could deal with the preparations, I think I’ll pay you whatever you ask.”
His words, the immense relief on his face, as if she’d just saved his life, made her emit a chuckle. Then she doubled over with hilarity.
He smiled at her. “Was I little too anxious?”
She laughed even harder.
“If you wait a few more seconds before accepting, you might hear me beg.”
She could barely breathe her mirth was so strong. When she finally could catch her breath, she nodded. “I accept.”
He sat back, a triumphant expression on his face. “Thank God. You can start now. Hell, I had you starting the second the proposal came out of your mouth.”
She wiped a tear away from her eye. “I can’t tell you how I have agonized over my future. I must admit I hated the idea of leaving your hotel. It’s just beautiful.”
“We like it.” He slumped in his chair and stretched his legs out. “This place was mostly my mother’s doing, so we appreciate her for that, but she nearly killed my father to get it like this.”
She sobered. “I’m so sorry.”
He shook his head. “No need to be. When my sister got married, everything came to head, and Pa just couldn’t take it anymore. It’s sad, but we’re better off with her gone. Maybe someday she’ll return, but she’ll have to do a lot of changing before he’ll fetch her back.”
Again, she wished she had the elder Mr. Taylor’s power to make her family leave. However, she needed to face them. Now. Fine. She rose. “I thank you for your time. I need to find my family, but also get started on my new job. Whom should I speak to first?”
He stood. “Let me take you to Opal. She’s the head maid. Pretty sure you’re saving her life, too. She’s not a fan of trussed up parties.”
As they smiled at each other, she gazed into his eyes. His warm eyes. And she remembered his kindness when she was cold. The way he’d wrapped her up. The care in his touch. Desire flooded her, and her throat went dry.
Awareness lit his brown depths. His lids lowered.
Her breath came quicker. Oh, dear.
She opened her mouth. “I—”, but her voice strangled on whatever she was going to say. She really had no coherent thought.
He cleared his throat. “Let’s get you introduced to Opal, then…”
After a couple seconds, he muttered, “Hell, if I know.” He shoved his fingers through his hair then smoothed his beard. “If you need help with your family, you let me know. I’ll take great pleasure in tossing Farris on his ass.”
His offer pleased her more than it should. “Thank you, Mr. Taylor.”
He nodded once then stepped toward the door.
She followed, desire still clinging to her.