Excerpt from Texas Tiger

     
     His leg ached from sitting still so long. Crossing it over his other knee, Daniel Mulloney idly massaged the rebellious muscle while staring out at the Ohio cornfields flying past. He should have ignored Evie's advice and ridden his horse. At least his leg would have felt better, and his pride—or whatever it was that made a man feel at home in one kind of suit and not another—would be satisfied. He was damned uncomfortable wearing this stiff collar and tie.
     But the train was faster and more efficient, and he would be arriving home in some semblance of style. Evie had probably been right about that. She just didn't realize that there wouldn't be anyone there to appreciate his ceremonious return. He hadn't told anyone he was coming.
     Thinking of his adopted sister's response to that information if he'd told her, Daniel grinned at his reflection in the glass. She'd have boxed his ears and insisted on coming with him. He could just imagine the reaction of the staid midwestern ladies and gentlemen of Cutlerville if Evie and her husband, Tyler, had shown up on their door-steps. Evie would no doubt wear one of her latest Parisian gowns with feathers in her hair, and Tyler would have his boots and Stetson and fifty-dollar smile. They would have the populace eating out of their hands before sundown.
     In the wake of his adopted sister and brother-in-law, no one would even know Daniel had arrived. He'd liked it that way all these years, but it was time for things to change. And the first step in that direction meant confronting the family he'd never known. He had to know who he was before he could move on to what he wanted to be.
     That might be a strange thing for a twenty-eight-year-old man to be thinking, but then, Daniel Mulloney hadn't exactly led a particularly normal life. He hadn't been expected to live any life at all.
     Tired of staring at his reflection and endless fields and tidy farms, Daniel returned his attention to the other passengers. There was one in particular who had caught his eye from the moment she had entered the train back in Cincinnati. She had been chattering with the conductor as he carried in her bag and helped her store it, and Daniel had been fascinated with the animation of her expression. He could tell by her expensive clothes and hat that she was a lady, but she had conversed with the colored conductor as if they were the best of friends. She'd neglected to tip the man, he had noticed, but the conductor had still gone out grinning. A charming woman could easily have that kind of effect.
     He had heard her chattering with the woman in the seat beside her at the beginning, but her morose companion hadn't exactly been a conversationalist, and the young lady had grown silent after a while. Daniel turned to see what she was doing now.
     To his complete surprise, she was staring at him. A brilliant smile engulfed her face as she caught his look. She wasn't exactly what Daniel would call beautiful. She was too short and blond and round for his tastes, but she had the damnedest smile he'd ever seen, and a pair of blue eyes that laughed without even trying. He returned the smile and waited to see what would happen.
     She didn't disappoint.
     "I've been hoping you would look this way," she whispered loudly, nodding in the direction of the woman sleeping beside her. "You looked like you could use someone to talk to as much as I could."
     He'd grown up in Missouri and Texas and Mississippi, and although the South was known for its hospitality and friendliness, Daniel didn't know a lady of his acquaintance who would have dared approach a strange male like that. He didn't think even Evie would be quite so bold unless she had something on her mind.
     That thought made him restless, but Daniel gallantly tipped his hat and gestured to the empty seat beside him. "You're welcome to set a spell, ma'am."
     She practically beamed at him as she gathered up her parasol and traveling bag and the long train of her skirt to transfer across the aisle. "I knew you were a Texan. You had to be with that hat. All the men I know wear black top hats, and even the shopkeepers wear bowlers. What is that thing called?"
     Daniel carefully removed his broad-brimmed Stetson and set it on his lap. He was trying to keep from laughing at the same time as his senses were being inundated by a soft scent that sort of just crept up on him. He allowed his gaze to trail over her unusual costume of loose silk that showed no indication of the heavy corsets the other ladies around them were wearing. At least tight bodices gave him a good idea of what was underneath. This woman's folds of silk left him guessing, and imagining entirely too much.
     "It's called a hat, ma'am. And what is that thing called that you're wearing?" Generally, he wasn't rude to strangers, but this pretty miss was setting off firecrackers with every move she made, and he had the need to defend himself.
     She untied the ribbons on her old-fashioned bonnet, uncovering a tumble of loose curls gathered up in a scarf in some incomprehensibly Grecian fashion, and set it aside while she reached for his hat. Placing it on her head, she strained to catch her reflection in the dirty window.
     "It's a bonnet, as you know full well. I do so think that clothes make the person, don't you? I mean, I could just look at your hat and know that you were a fascinating man from Texas with probably no notion of propriety and lots of entertaining stories to tell. Do you like my gown? It's the aesthetic fashion. Back in London Oscar Wilde and his set are calling for a return to simpler styles. Actually, I think they had Greek dress in mind, but most of them are wearing knee breeches in town and calling themselves daring. I think knee breeches are perfectly silly, but I do agree with the need for looser dress. Corsets are so appallingly restricting."
     Her mention of the unmentionable was equally appalling and nearly struck Daniel dumb, but a long acquaintance with Evie had prepared him to deal with anything and everything. Adjusting the Stetson at a jaunty angle on the lady's head, he managed to get a word in. "Ties and suit coats and starched collars are equally restricting, but what would you do if I removed mine?"
     Ignoring the reprimand in his voice, she grinned beguilingly, her blue eyes dancing and catching him in their magic. "Why don't you try it and we'll see?"
     "You know you're incorrigible, don't you? That's why you're doing this. It's a deliberate act." Daniel did his best to sound reproving, but in the face of so much life and laughter, he could only hide a smile.
     "You see right through me, sir." She removed the hat and handed it back to him. "My name is Georgina Meredith Hanover. If you're going to Cutlerville, you're certain to hear of me. I believe I'm called The Incorrigible behind my back, actually. And I daresay that's one of the milder terms. Do you have a name?"
     Several of them. It was a fact that he had debated frequently since buying the train ticket. Daniel Mulloney was a perfectly innocuous name. He really didn't think anyone would put two and two together. But he was a cautious man and inclined to keep his secrets to himself. Choosing not to lie deliberately, he replied, "They call me Pecos Martin, ma'am. Pleased to meet you."
     She seemed thoroughly delighted with the sobriquet, but not entirely fooled by his reticence. With a twinkle in her eye, she didn't pry for more, but merrily continued. "Pecos Martin! I love it. I can't wait to introduce you at parties. You will come to my parties, won't you? I'm certain there will be dozens of them."
     Avoiding the question, Daniel answered, "Dozens of parties must denote a special occasion. Are you turning sweet sixteen?"
     She smacked his arm with the fan she had removed from her traveling bag and was wielding briskly with great effect. Her tumbled curls blew in the breeze of her artful waving. "Sixteen! Honestly. Men have no sense at all. I've just come back from traveling all over the Continent and you think I'm just sixteen. Well, I'm not. I'll have you know I'm almost twenty-one and I'm about to be married. So there." The insult in her voice disappeared as she turned and peered at him impishly. "Do I really look sixteen? Did I do that right? Like a proper matron?"
     Daniel couldn't help it. This time he laughed, slapping his knee and catching great gulps of air at this pixieish display of artifice, laughing even harder when a frown began to form on her forehead. She was even better than Evie at her worst. Georgina Meredith Hanover was definitely not the quiet intellectual type he preferred, but she had the bold effrontery he knew how to deal with. He felt right at home with the little imp.
     "I don't see what's so funny. Do you think my getting married is funny? Or that my being a proper matron is a laughing matter?"
     Daniel shook his head and recovered himself, giving her a look of amusement as he spoke. "I hope you're marrying someone with a sense of humor. He's going to need it. Does he know you flirt with strange men?"
     She pursed her lips and glared at him, but the laughter behind her eyes didn't die entirely. Instead, the effect was almost winsome, as if a shadow had passed between them, revealing something she hadn't meant to be seen. She spread the fan and turned away.
     "He has absolutely no sense of humor at all, and he would probably put me in chains if he knew I flirted. Why do you think I've spent the last two years in Europe? I've been trying to get all this childish behavior out of my system so I can become a proper wife."
     Everything she had said up until now had been silly and flirtatious and without a grain of intelligence. Daniel wasn't quite ready for the shift to truth. Assuming this was just another game, he replied in kind. "I can see you've succeeded magnificently. You'll no doubt be staidly pouring tea from a silver pot before the week is out."
     She affected a bright smile. "Well, that would be fine, if I didn't have to pour it into cups. I can think of a couple of laps that could use heating up."
     That was not only impolite, it smacked of the desperate. Daniel turned her a wary look to be certain she wasn't one of these hysterical females who would soon deteriorate into tears. She was busily removing a sketchpad from her traveling bag. Damn, but she could be Evie's second cousin.
     "I've decided to take up painting. Do you know anything about art, Mr. Martin?"
     Personally, he knew little or nothing about it, but he had seen plenty of it in his lifetime. He took her sketchpad and flipped through the pages. The drawings were good reproductions of various architectural monuments she had visited, but they were nothing like Evie's dramatic portraits. Daniel shrugged.
     "I don't know a whole lot," he admitted. "These seem to be mighty fine pictures, though. I think I've seen one like this." He pointed to the cathedral tower of Notre Dame.
     "Of course, everyone's seen it." She snapped the pad closed and returned it to her bag. "That's the whole problem. I have no imagination. I don't suppose marriage stimulates the imagination."
     Finally divining the source of the problem, Daniel offered what he thought was practical advice. "Well, now, if you're not interested in getting married just yet, you don't have to say yes. Just tell the man you've changed your mind."
     "You try telling Peter anything. Or my father. They've made up their minds, and no amount of talking is going to change them. After all, I'm just a silly woman who doesn't know what she wants. And they're right. I haven't the foggiest notion of what I want. So I guess I'll get married."
     There wasn't much Daniel could say to that. The only experience he'd had with marriage was Evie and Tyler's, and that marriage certainly hadn't started out in the most conventional manner. He'd been foolish enough to contemplate it once himself, but apparently the reasons he'd thought were good enough for marriage weren't good enough for the object of his intentions. So he scarcely qualified as an expert.
     "You must have some feelings for the man or you wouldn't have agreed in the first place."
     Georgina shrugged. "I don't remember ever actually agreeing. To be perfectly factual, I don't remember ever being asked. When I came back from finishing school, they started talking about setting a date. That's when I panicked and made them give me a few years of travel. I thought maybe absence would make my heart grow fonder or some such bosh. But all I can remember about Peter is that he was the best-looking man at my come-out. I really don't think that's a basis for marriage."
     There was a small frown behind her eyes as she said this, but before Daniel could think of an adequate reply, she was laughing again and tapping him with her fan. "Now tell me you'll come to my parties. I'm dying to show you off to my friends. A real live Texan! Won't they be thrilled? How many Indians have you killed? Did you know Wild Bill Hickok? Can you shoot a gun?"
     Her laughter was much easier to deal with. He had enough problems of his own without falling for the vulnerability behind that small frown she had shown earlier. He had a weak place for helpless females, which he meant to completely expunge one of these days. He responded to her questions in the same manner they were asked.
     "Texans learn how to hold off a tribe of Indians at gunpoint before they learn to walk. Actually, we learn to ride before we can crawl. You can't invite me to parties unless you invite my horse."
     She laughed and they exchanged silly pleasantries until the train pulled into the station. They were still laughing as Daniel helped her gather her things and carry them out to the platform. But Daniel stopped laughing the instant they reached the platform, and he saw the disapproval on the faces of the elegant lady and gentleman he knew at once were her parents. Georgina, however, blithely threw herself into their arms without a care in the world.
     "Georgina, where in heaven's name is your companion?" Daniel heard the horrified whisper as he lowered the lady's travel bag to the ground.
     "Oh, I left her in New York. She really was quite cross with me, and I told her if she couldn't be pleasant, she could stay there. I'm a world traveler now, Mama. I can handle a little journey from New York to Ohio on my own."
     Daniel solemnly returned the gaze of the bewhiskered elderly gentleman frowning at him. After facing Indians, bandits, and Tyler, he could handle a pompous old goat in waistcoat and starched collar without a qualm. He didn't bother extending his hand in courtesy until Georgina offered introductions.
     At the stiff silence between the two men, his companion jumped from her mother's arms to perform the required etiquette. "Papa, this is Pecos Martin. He's from Texas and he said he'd come to my parties if he could bring his horse. Mr. Martin, this is my father, George Hanover."
     As the two men shook hands, she continued to chatter. "Mr. Martin was ever so kind in helping with my luggage. And he didn't even mind listening to my silly prattle." She rummaged in her bag and produced a card case. "You must be certain to call on me so I can see that you get an invitation. Please say you will."
     Daniel took the card and slipped it into his vest pocket under the disapproving frown of her father. Somehow, through all her laughter, Miss Georgina Hanover was sending distress signals loud and clear. He wasn't born a Texan, but he knew how to act like one, and there wasn't a Texan alive who wouldn't come to the rescue of a lady in distress.
     He bowed, made his excuses, and limped away.
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