married. You know of what I speak. Or perhaps you would prefer I refer to it as a dance. He leads, she follows. He urges, she resists. But they both know the outcome. In the darkness. The mingling of breath, the touching, the ultimate surrender.”

Alethea’s gaze locked with his. Her body was rigid, except for her hands, which trembled slightly. She looked away suddenly, then nearly spilled her wine as she fumbled putting the glass back on the table.

“Look,” she said loudly and with obvious relief. “Ella brings our dinner. I am looking forward to the roast beef most of all.”

They spoke of little as they ate. Or rather, he ate and she played with her food, moving it around on her plate. She seemed flustered and ill at ease.

He had not meant to upset her, although he was pleased to know how powerfully she had reacted to his words. It boded well for his plans.

Zeke wanted her with a desire he hadn’t felt in a long time. Perhaps it was her combination of intelligence and beauty. Or the fact that she’d been married before. His seductions leaned toward virgins and those women whom one bought for an evening. One required too much work and the other, not enough. But Alethea already understood the mystery, yet would not take the experience lightly. An intriguing possibility. He must remember to thank Billy for setting him on this path. Although he liked to think he would have noticed a woman like Alethea, regardless of circumstance.

When the meal was finished, they rose and left the dining room. At the foot of the stairs, she turned to him.

“I am more than capable of climbing the stairs on my own. Thank you for the meal.”

“I don’t mind accompanying you. My room is on the same floor.”

She narrowed her gaze. “While that may be true, there is no need for us to discuss it or acknowledge it in any way.”

“Mr. Titan,” he whispered.


“You forgot to add ‘Mr. Titan’ at the end. You’re annoyed. I can tell.”

“You are as presumptuous and infuriating as you are charming. However, I am more than capable of maintaining control over my emotions.”

He took her hand in his, enjoying the feel of her warm, soft skin. “I had a lovely time with you this evening, Mrs. Harbaugh, and look forward to many more dinners together.”

She pressed her lips together in order to keep from smiling. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I have a pressing social calendar.”

“Do you?”

“Yes. Many, many engagements.”

“That will be my loss.”

“One I’m sure you will bear bravely. Good night.” She withdrew her hand and started up the stairs.

Halfway up, she paused and looked back at him. For a second, there was nothing. Then she smiled.

Zeke nodded properly, watched her until she turned onto the landing, then laughed out loud. Damn, it was good to be home.

“How was your dinner?” Daisy asked.

Alethea held on to her morning cup of tea. She’d stopped in to see her friend, as she did every day before school.

“You know about my dinner with Mr. Titan?”

Daisy looked up from the bread dough she was kneading. “Everyone knows. Zeke has quite the reputation, as you know, but…” Daisy drew in a breath. “You’re not going to like this.”

Alethea stiffened her spine. “Tell me, anyway.”

“The men are placing bets. Apparently Zeke has agreed to run you out of town.”

“What?” Alethea nearly dropped her cup. “He wants me to leave Titanville?”

Was that possible? Last night he’d been so charming. She’d been intrigued by the different sides of his character and had even convinced herself she might have been hasty in her judgment of him.

“Not Zeke so much as all the other men. It’s the society.”

“Of course,” Alethea murmured. “Big, strong men don’t want anyone threatening their authority. But how is Zeke supposed to make sure I leave?” And if that was his goal, why had he been so warm to her last night?

Daisy wiped her hands on a towel and walked to the wooden table. She sat across from Alethea. “You know that Zeke gambles. He started when was young and it’s how he made his fortune.” She frowned. “Now he has several successful businesses, but back then, he had a reputation for being impossible to beat. Gamblers came from all over to play cards with him. When they lost, they got angry. There were several gunfights. The streets weren’t safe.”

Alethea couldn’t imagine Titanville as such a place.

“Zeke was also successful with the ladies. Several daughters were compromised. While there were no resulting children, reputations were ruined. The girls were sent away.

“Eventually the city leaders had a meeting with Zeke,” Daisy continued. “Running him out of town wasn’t possible. He owns most of the land. So a compromise was reached. He gave up gambling, except with friends, and he agreed to stop seducing the women in town. In return, the town was named after him and he was given…”

Daisy hesitated. “This was before we met you, Alethea. Before we were friends. The other teachers were so young and foolish. They weren’t interested in our children-they wanted to find a man.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Daisy cleared her throat. “Zeke was allowed to have his way with the teachers, on condition he found them good and loving husbands when he was finished.”

Alethea sprang to her feet. “What? The town condones the seduction of innocent young women? You couldn’t solve the problem so you imported other people’s daughters to be ruined?”

“We all like Zeke.”

“And that makes the situation acceptable. Of course. How foolish of me to question anyone’s motivation.” She had never heard of anything so appalling in all her life. “I thought this was a respectable town. I thought there were good people living here.”

“We are good people. It’s just…”

“That someone has to be sacrificed to Zeke Titan’s lustful nature? And let me state the obvious. I’m to be his next victim.” She was shocked, but more than that, she was hurt. “I thought you and I were friends,” she said, collecting her reticule and books. “I see now I was wrong.”

Daisy stood and grabbed her arm. “No, Alethea. You’re not wrong. I value our friendship more than any other. At first, none of us thought about the unusual arrangement we have here. Zeke was gone and you were different. For the first time ever, our children became excited about learning. My own son mentioned going to college. Then you started the society and we came together as women. We saw the possibilities. We were inspired by your example. Our lives have changed. We didn’t want to tell you because we didn’t want to lose you.”

Daisy ducked her head. “I’m so sorry.”

Alethea didn’t know what to think, what to believe. “Am I to be sacrificed to Mr. Titan?”

“No,” Daisy said, looking at her. “Never. We want you to stay. That’s why I’m telling you about the deal Zeke made with the men in town.”

Zeke had made a deal? He wasn’t just trying to seduce her because he wanted to?

“He has a month to get rid of you. The men feel threatened by the changes you’ve brought. They don’t like wives who challenge them.” Daisy smiled. “We’re going to work together to defeat Zeke and all the men.”

Last night had been part of a plan that had nothing to do with getting her into his bed, Alethea thought, surprisingly disappointed by the realization. Zeke was simply doing what he had to in order to win a bet. The charm, the enjoyable conversation, had all been a pretense.

“Everyone assumes that once he has his way with you, you’ll be shamed into leaving Titanville,” Daisy continued.

“That would be true,” Alethea said slowly. “Having been married, I would not be ruined, as those other teachers were. But I would not be able to face anyone. I would lose my authority with the children. I’m sure the men see me as susceptible. A mere woman, intermittently weak of character.”

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