“I adore it,” she said, grateful for the safer topic of conversation. “There is so much life here. Building a community takes work, yet all are willing to help. The children are bright and earnest and healthy. There is air to breathe and clear skies.” She glanced at him. “I believe the town is named after your family.”

Zeke hesitated only a second before nodding. “Where are you from?”


“I heard you are a widow. I am sorry for your loss.”

“Thank you. My husband has been gone nearly five years. The sharpness of his absence has dulled a little, although I still miss him.”

“Five years is a long time to be alone. How did you meet?”

She sipped at the soup, then put down her spoon. The memory was a happy one. “Wesley taught English literature. He was giving a lecture. My mother didn’t want me to attend. She thought I spent too much time reading and didn’t put enough effort into finding a husband. But she finally agreed and off I went. He read from Shakespeare with such passion, the words came alive. I never wanted the evening to end. Afterward, there was a reception. I was too shy to speak to him.”

She smiled at the recollection, of how she’d hovered at the edges of the room, speaking to the people she knew, trying to both watch Wesley and not be seen as watching.

“My aunt introduced us. We were both desperately nervous. Neither of us could speak to the other. I suppose it was love from that first moment.”

Zeke studied her over his wineglass. “Your beauty grows more pronounced when you speak of your late husband. He was a lucky man.”

“Thank you,” she murmured, feeling the sincerity of his words. “You are kind to say that. We were married four months later. Wesley encouraged me to read, suggested titles and never complained when dinner was late because I had forgotten to start it. After he was gone, my father suggested I consider teaching as a way to share all I’d learned. And so I came here.”

“It’s Titanville’s gain.”

She laughed. “I hope so. Do you read much, Zeke?”

Humor sparkled in his brown eyes. “You spoke my name.”

“Oh, please do not pretend that has any significance.”

“It does to me. I shall lie awake tonight and relive this moment until dawn.”

“Then I feel sorry for you and will say you are a very foolish man. Which I know not to be true. Gamblers must have a level of intelligence to be successful.”

“You know of my gambling?”

“I know many things.”

“You’ve been talking about me.”

“I have been listening,” she told him. “There is a difference. The ladies in town find you a favorite topic of conversation. I have been warned about you.”

He leaned close. “Excellent. Then we come to battle as equals, my dear Alethea. A happy circumstance for us both.”

Chapter Three

“Happy for you, perhaps,” Alethea said coolly. “But I am not the type of woman to be seduced by your charm and wit, Mr. Titan.”

Zeke chuckled. “I can’t decide which is more delightful. Your admission that I have charm and wit, or the proof that you are annoyed.”

“You want me angry?”

“I cannot imagine you in a state that does not please me.”

“How wonderful to know my deathbed would bring you joy.”

He laughed aloud, then toasted her with his wine. “Well done. You have defeated me, but only for the moment.”

“I will savor my small victory.”

“May it be the first of many.”

Ella returned to take their bowls away. Neither of them had eaten very much. For his part, it was because he had enjoyed conversing with Alethea. She was intelligent and humorous. He found pleasure in her features. The slight upward tilt of her eyes, the fullness of her mouth. She was a beautiful woman. He could not recall a more pleasant evening. Even if he was never to have her in his bed, he would still want to spend time speaking with her. Something that had never happened to him before.

“So, Alethea, what have you been up to in town?” he asked. “You have all the men in a state. When I first returned I was convinced there had been an attack from Indians or pirates.”

“Pirates would be at a disadvantage here where there is no ocean.”

“But they are a hardy lot. They would find a way.”

“You compare me to vicious men who steal and plunder? I am beyond dismayed.” Humor brightened her green eyes even as her mouth sank into a pout.

“Then I’ll compare you to a windstorm or a tornado. You have upset nearly all the men in town. I would like to know how that is possible.”

“Simple,” she said. “I have given the women ideas.”

“Through your society?”

“You have heard of it?”

“I have heard of little else. Shall you tsk me now?”

She laughed. The full sound made him want to join in. He enjoyed watching her amusement. It made him want to make her laugh again.

“I was in a mood,” she admitted. “The name simply came to me. It’s not that I don’t like the men in town, but they are typical of males everywhere. Why is the idea of a woman using her mind so horrifying? Do you know that here in Texas, a woman may own property, even after she is married? But that is not the case in other places. Once married, a woman gives up her property to her husband. Why is that? She was intelligent enough to handle her finances before the marriage but not after? Doesn’t that speak more to the draining influence of men than the foolishness of women?”

She picked up her wine, then put it down. “I believe that women are as capable as men. We are not as strong, it is true, but then, the average man would never survive the rigors of childbirth or have the patience to raise children. Is it wrong for a mother to have a voice in her children’s future? Should only their father decide their fate? What if she is more intelligent? What if she has a better view of the world? Is that to be ignored merely because of her sex?”

“You have passion on this subject,” he said, knowing he could listen to her opinions well into the night. She was much more charming than he had thought possible.

“Yes, not that my passion will change anything. So if the society gives men pause, then I am content. Let them be a little afraid. It does no harm. Perhaps they will actually listen to their wives.”

“Did Wesley listen to you?”

“When he was not busy reading.” She sighed. “He was a good man.”

“But not strong enough for you.”

She blinked. “I don’t understand.”

“From your description it does not sound as if your Wesley would have challenged you.”

Zeke was guessing, although his gut told him he was right. Alethea proved him correct by pointedly ignoring the statement and sipping her wine.

“The victory is all the sweeter when one has a worthy opponent,” he told her.

She set down her glass. “That is the second time you have made a reference to fighting. Is all of life a battle to you?”

“No. Only the skirmishes between a man and a woman interest me.” He lowered his voice. “You’ve been

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