Authors: Brenda Joyce
“Rathe, I'm so glad you could come.”
Grace O'Rourke sat perfectly erect, shoulders stiff and squared, glovedâ¦
Allen was waiting for her at the railroad depot inâ¦
She came out of her state of stunned immobility.
“What do you think?” Robert Chatham asked.
It was eight when she was at last summoned toâ¦
The thought of seducing her had crossed his mind, onceâ¦
On the following Wednesday, Grace spent the whole day excitedâ¦
Louisa Barclay met them on the veranda.
It was mid-afternoon, but Natchez-Under-the-Hill was just coming awake whenâ¦
“Where are we going?”
Grace ran out onto the deck, almost falling on theâ¦
“Harriet, what do you know about Rathe Bragg?” Grace askedâ¦
The next day the one dozen members of the Natchezâ¦
A few days later Grace went to the mayor's officeâ¦
It was this worry that kept Grace awake past herâ¦
Rathe woke up first. He didn't move. His entire bodyâ¦
Grace woke the next morning feeling desperate. She had noâ¦
Despite her exhaustion, she couldn't sleep.
Rathe quietly entered his room at the Silver Lady Hotel.
They had finished breakfast and Grace was playing idly withâ¦
“What are you thinking about so seriously?” he asked, smiling.
The first thing Grace was aware of was the morningâ¦
Rathe was in love. The next few days passed inâ¦
“I have to see him,” she cried, trying to sitâ¦
It felt like she was mortally wounded. Grace slid toâ¦
Ford was not alone. Behind him, rifles casually cradled inâ¦
He awoke with a smile on his face, sighed, andâ¦
Grace gazed out the window at the east Texas countryside,â¦
“Look! That's Mama!”
New York City
November 1, 1873
“Rathe, I'm so glad you could come.”
Rathe Bragg's smile was easy and devastatingly charming as he shook Albert van Horne's hand. He had just stepped into the huge, marble-columned foyer of van Horne's Fourteenth Street mansion. The ceilings were twenty-five feet high and decorated with intricately painted cherubs floating on a bank of clouds. A staircase and massive rosewood and brass banister curved upward toward the mezzanine, the steps carpeted in royal red from the Orient. Classical busts frowned at Rathe from green marble bases, and a chandelier the size of two grand pianos hung from the ceiling, shimmering with thousands of crystals. Rathe had seen his share of fabulously appointed homes, but even he was impressed.
“It's my pleasure, Albert. You know that,” he said warmly, meaning it.
Albert van Horne, who had been financing the railroads since before the outbreak of the Civil War, returned Rathe's smile. He threw his arm around the young man's shoulders and together they strolled through a vast black and white marble-floored hall. “How are you, Rathe?”
“Fine, sir, and you?”
“As hale as possible, I think,” van Horne replied. “I've heard rumors that you'll be leaving us again shortly.”
“Yes sir, I'm afraid so.”
“I have some business I'd like to discuss with you before you go.” Van Horne shook his head. “Rathe, you'll be thirty in a few years. You just got back from Europe and now you're off again. It's time you thought of settling down. Build yourself a home. Put down roots.”
“I'm afraid it's businessânot pleasureâthat's taking me away this time. I've invested in a mining venture in Vancouver. We've had a helluva time getting this operation off the ground. I'm headed up there to find out what or who is holding up the works.”
“You think it could be a matter of human error?” Van Horne asked.
human error,” Rathe returned, with a surprising, hard chill to his tone. He was a beautiful man, tall, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, bronzed from a lifetime out of doors, his hair a riot of gold, his face perfectly sculpted. Yet now, all of his easy charm, so irresistible when coupled with his blond good looks, was gone. He suddenly seemed menacing.
They entered a huge and opulent salon, with thick Persian rugs underfoot and a frescoed ceiling overhead. The salon was nowhere near full, for tonight's dinner was just an intimate gathering of twenty or so, all in formal evening wear.
Rathe glanced around the room, nodding at those nearest him and seeking out Mrs. van Horne, a bland-looking, overweight woman. “Jocelyn, it's wonderful to see you again,” he said warmly, then kissed her hand. “I see you've done some redecorating. The place looks beautiful.”
“Oh, do you think so?” Jocelyn asked worriedly, biting her plump lower lip and crossing her arms over her massive bosom. “I do wonder if the reds and purples really go together. You have such good taste, Rathe. Tell me truthfully, do you really think they're all right?”
“Fit only for kings and their queens,” he said, grinning and sweeping her a mock bow. “My lady.”
Thadeus Parker, a real-estate magnate and a good friend, clasped his hand firmly. “Good to see you, my boy. Heard you've been up to more crazy escapades. Climbing cliffs in the Alps?”
Rathe grinned. “We call it rock climbing, Thad, and it's quite a sport.”
“Quite a way to kill yourself, if you ask me.”
Rathe chuckled. “That's half the thrill. But I have no intention of getting myself killedâthere's too much I haven't done yet.”
“It's a good thing you were born under a lucky star,” Parker said. “Because one fall is all it takes. You know, Rathe, most men would give anything for your luck.”
Rathe raised an eyebrow. “In business, at cards, or with women?”
Parker laughed. “All three!”
“How's Elizabeth?” Rathe asked. “And the girls? The last time I saw those two I was in jeopardy of losing my heart twice over!”
Parker beamed. “Elizabeth is very well, thank you, and of course, the girls have heard you're in town and are begging to see you.”
Parker's daughters were thirteen and fifteen and actually too plain to have admirers swooning at their feet. “I'll stop by tomorrow,” Rathe promised. “I've brought them a few gifts from Paris.”
“You spoil them,” Parker chastised gently.
Rathe chuckled, exposing two deep dimples. “How could I not spoil those two?” And he meant it.
He nodded at a steel magnate, a textile king, the publisher of the New York
, and the famous socialite lawyer, Bradley Martin, and his wife, Cornelia. He was about to move toward the latter when something hard came banging down on his arm. He could tell by the feel of the blow that it had come from old Mrs. Anderson's cane. He turned, smiling, and was rapped once again. The diminutive, white-haired woman glared. “You come in
here and talk to everyone in the room but me, you scoundrel!”
Rathe took her clawlike hand with its huge emerald ring and kissed it gallantly. “You're too quick for me, Beatrice, and you know it.”
She scowled. “You haven't come to visit me in a week, boy!”
“I came yesterday, remember?” he said gently, still holding her hand. The redoubtable widow had been the wife of a prominent banker and the hostess nonpareil of her generation. She was thus still deferred to and invited to all of society's functions, although some thought her senile. “Did you enjoy the French chocolates I brought you?”
Her faded blue eyes suddenly lit up. “I did indeed! Next time you bring me two boxes, not one!”
He had to smile. “Beatrice, you didn't eat the entire box already, did you?”
“Of course not,” she huffed.
He fingered her shawl, another gift from him. It was made of the most delicate silk, a vivid, shimmering green which clashed terribly with her pale blue gown. “I see you like the shawl?”
She melted. “It's beautiful, Rathe. I wear it every day. But next time you go abroad you must take me with you. Then I can buy my own shawls and candies. I haven't been to Paris in far too long. I'm not getting any younger, you know.”
Mrs. Anderson was well into her eighties. “It's a long, hard trip,” Rathe said softly, seriously. “When I arrive in London, I'm exhausted for a week. A terrible trip.”
“Hmm.” She pursed her mouth. “Yes, I remember, it's a very long voyage. Maybe it is too much for me at my age.”
“You just tell me what you want me to bring you next time, Beatrice, and I will.”
“You're a good boy,” she said, touching his cheek.
“Thank you,” he said. Then, with a twinkle in his blue eyes, he winked. “I know.”
Her cane came down again on his arm. “Pride goeth before the fall.”
Rathe just grinned.
Van Horne walked over to them with a striking blond woman. “Have you met my niece, Rathe?” he asked. “Patricia Darning? Perhaps you ran into her husband while you were in London?”
Rathe turned to the beautiful blonde. He took her hand and kissed it casually. “No, I don't believe I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Darning. But I am acquainted with his lovely wife,” he said, dimpling, “which is how I know that Darning is a very lucky man.”
Patricia was staring at him intensely. “Thank you. I hear you just came back from Europe?” she asked politely.
“Yes. The Alps. Paris, London.”
“How nice,” she murmured.
Rathe turned his attention back to van Horne. “By the way, when I was in England visiting my brother I stopped at a Devon stud farm and purchased a colt and two broodmares. The mares are proven, but Albert,” Rathe said as his eyes flashed, “the colt is superb. A real winner.”
“Why don't you tell me all about it tomorrow over breakfast at the club?”
A dazzling smile broke out on Rathe's face. “Good. And we can discuss the business you mentioned earlier, as well.”
Van Horne agreed and moved away, mingling with his other guests.
“I missed you today,” Patricia said in a low, careful voice. “I came by your hotel, but you weren't there. I waited for an hour, Rathe.”
“I'm sorry, Trish, but I was in a meeting.” He smiled, glancing around the room. Then, because no one was paying them any mind, Rathe held her gaze with heady promise. A small smile tilted the beautiful curve of his mouth;
his hand touched her waist, his thumb moving sensually across her satin gown. He leaned close. “We can make up for lost time later, don't you think?” His drawl was pure west Texas, both smooth as silk and rough as sandpaper.
“Meet me upstairs in the blue guest room in half an hour,” Patricia whispered, and then she walked away.
For a brief moment, Rathe gazed after her. He was remembering their last hot interlude. But lately, Patricia had started hinting that she would be amenable to divorcing her husband, Darning. She had also begun questioning Rathe about his half-brother, Nick, who, although a quarter Indian, like himself, was the current Lord Shelton, Earl of Dragmore.
The fact that Nick and Rathe's mother was the last Lord Shelton's daughter was no secret, yet Rathe never referred to it. How Patricia had found out was beyond him, but apparently she had been doing some detective work. And when a woman began investigating, well, it meant she had certain serious intentions.
Rathe supposed he ought to put an end to her machinations by telling her the truth. He wasn't ready to settle down; he doubted he would be for another decadeâat least. It wasn't that he was against marriage, because he wasn't. Someday he would meet the right woman and have a family, the way his father had when he'd met his mother. But that day was a long way off yet and there was a whole world waiting for him out there. After Canada he was going to sail to China on a merchant clipper in which he had recently purchased shares. After all, he had never been to the Orient before.
Still, he couldn't help feeling a touch sorry for Patricia, though he had never made her any promises, and she
already married. Why was it that women all wanted to marry him? Especially the proper kind. Even before he had made his first million, they seemed to start thinking about the altar just as soon as they laid eyes on him.
Rathe chatted amiably with van Horne's guests, finding
the time to say a few brief words to everybody, but exactly thirty minutes later he was entering the blue guest room and closing the heavy rosewood door behind him. Patricia was waiting with a look no man could possibly mistake. Rathe pulled her slowly and completely against him. “Hello, Trish,” he murmured, and then his mouth found hers gently, stroking and sensual. He plundered with his tongue, fully aroused now, pressing his hot hardness against her, rubbing lithely back and forth. She moaned. He cupped a small breast and kneaded it.
“Oh, Rathe, Rathe,” she gasped, her hands wild in his thick sun-streaked hair.
“I know, darlin', I know,” he groaned back.
Her dress was full-length, the latest style from Paris. It boasted a fashionably full bustle and a set of collapsing hoops, which annoyed Rathe immenselyâespecially at times like these. He pulled it up to her waist with skilled determination. His hand immediately went to her thigh, delicately tracing its inner softness to the wonderfully full and swelling joining of her legs. She sagged against the door. Deftly he found the opening in her scanty silk drawers, then the damp, warm flesh, stroking gently, searching, gliding insistently. She shuddered and whimpered.
He kissed her softly, barely, teasingly. His tongue played and tormented. “Come on, darlin', come on, reach for the stars,” he drawled thickly, urgently.
She moaned, a low, ragged sound, then tensed and cried out, again and again.
“Darlin',” he whispered, swiftly unbuttoning his trousers. Swollen and thick, he bent his knees, and thrust in. She gasped. He did, too.
With her legs around his waist and her back against the door, she rode him as he moved, hard, rhythmically, his face buried in her neck.
“Rathe,” she whimpered, “I thinkâ
.” She sobbed.
With his own guttural cry, he exploded, spasm after spasm of his hot seed filling her.
After they had regained their breath and as they re
adjusted their clothing, Rathe squeezed her waist fondly. “Sweet,” he murmured. “Now let's go before we're missed.”
She gave him a look of utter adoration.
Twenty minutes later they sat to dinner amidst white linen, crystal, and Chateau Rothschild. The conversation soon turned to everyone's favorite scandal, the Woodhull affair.
Victoria Woodhull and her sister had been running an extremist women's weekly, which advocated, among other things, the right of women to love whomever and whenever they chose. Recently, Victoria Woodhull had accused Henry Ward Beecher, a leader of the National Women's Suffrage Association, of having an affair with Elizabeth Tilton, the wife of a reformist editor. Woodhull had gone on to call Beecher a hypocrite and coward for not supporting free love publicly. Then the Women's Suffrage Association responded by breaking with the Woodhull sisters, who were arrested for printing obscene literature. At the present, the papers were ablaze with the scandal, and the public hungry for any bit of gossip they could provide.
“I, for one, think Woodhull's guilty,” Cornelia Martin announced. “Imagine, printing stories on free love in her little newspaperâof course it's obscene material.”
“That entire paper is obscene,” said van Home. “Advocating free love for women and men? My God, it's atheistic!”
Rathe couldn't help grinning at that. “I happen to think free love is an interesting idea,” he murmured dryly.
Patricia glared at him. Some of the men chuckled.