Excerpt from My One True Love, 2020 copyright Deborah Small , All Rights Reserved
She braced as he neared, his lean, hard-edged face not exactly beaming with welcome, and eased out a breath when he stopped a few yards short of the coach.
Her imagination had failed her where he was concerned, too. She’d envisioned a keg-bellied man with rough red skin and a permanent squint from long days in the sun. Instead, she was regarding a tanned man in his prime, with a shock of dark hair and a jawline that could make a mature lion weep with shame.
A host of butterflies took flight in her chest, forcing her to drag in a steadying breath.
“Get a grip, Margaret,” she whispered fingers tightening on her fan. “You’ve no reason to feel intimidated. He works for you, remember? They all work for you.”
But all of the workers clumped together behind him didn’t unnerve her the way he did, standing alone and ten feet away.
Steeling her nerves, she peeled away from the velvet seatback and stood. Leaning out the door, she paused, eyes narrowed against the shards of sunlight splintering across the lawn and people on it. When she could see without too much discomfort, she accepted the butler’s white-gloved assistance to step to the ground. She smiled.
“Thank you, Mr. …”
“Rufus, ma’am,” he said. “Just Rufus.” Dipping his chin, he backed away to stand beside the female house servant whose trim shoulder line was nearly perfectly level with his.
If the woman’s above-average height and crisply starched uniform wasn’t enough to elevate her status above that of the other women behind her, her snowy white tignon was. Peaking two or three inches above Mr. Rufus’s short-cropped and greyed curls, the head wrap was cut not of lacklustre cotton like those of the other women, but of material that shimmered as if it had been sprinkled with diamond dust. Its dazzling brilliance enhanced the steep slope of her cheekbones, and lent sparkle to the welcome shining in her eyes as she returned Margaret’s gaze. The only one of fifty some-odd people who did.
For the first time since setting out from Texas, she felt a flare of hope, weak and flickering, like a match flame struggling to find oxygen in a cavern carved of ice. The light and warmth died the moment she locked eyes with the dark-haired man.
He was taller than George had been, and shorter than William, so roughly six-foot-tall, with the broad-shouldered hardness of a man used to demanding physical labour. His shirt was loose on his frame and his hair longer than strictly fashionable, but it wasn’t his roguish departure from conventional style that captured her gaze, so much as the challenge in his level stare. She felt as if she’d rounded a curve on a wooded path and come nose to snout with a wolf.
A full-grown, green-eyed, wolf.
Suppressing a shiver she wasn’t entirely convinced was apprehension, she notched her chin slightly higher.
Whatever she’d expected when she’d set her course for Georgia, it wasn’t a staring contest with her late husband’s estate manager. Her estate manager, now. But if that was how Mr. Banner wished to initiate their relationship—temporary though it may be, if this proved a habit of his—then she would oblige.
If she’d learned anything in her brief tenure as Douglas County, Texas’s former schoolmarm, it was how vitally important it was to win the first stare-down. It set the tone for the remainder of the year, and indeed, for decades to come.
Joe contained his surprise the only way he knew how, by silencing his tongue, and shuttering his expression.
She was not at all as George had described her in his letters—she was worse. Far worse.
George had described a widow a few years younger than him who loved children, and who’d taken up teaching as a way to support herself after her husband’s death. From that, he’d envisioned one of two women—a brash, large-bosomed gold-digger, content to parade around on George’s arm in exchange for a comfortable, indeed, wealthy, lifestyle; or a staunch matron near, or nearing, the end of her childbearing years, who either viewed marriage to George as her last kick at the cat, or a woman who, aware that the cat would scamper out of reach no matter how well she aimed, planned to nurture her maternal instincts by smothering George under a cloud of marital bliss.
Face to face with the woman he had actually married—all five-foot-nothing, porcelain-skinned and freckled with not an ounce of maternal softness in her cool green gaze—all he could think was that he’d been so far off in his estimation that an ape draped in widow weeds could have climbed out of the four-up, and he’d have been less surprised. That, and, he should have resigned twelve months ago.
As though sensing his incredulity, and questioning why he should be so shocked, she arched her strawberry-blond eyebrows and hitched her slender shoulders back until each vertebrae of her spine was aligned so perfectly, the skirt of her simple black gown fell with linear precision to the gravel beneath her short-heeled black boots.
He flinched, tensing against a sudden and ridiculous urge to snap his heels together and salute as she continued to regard him with the steel-eyed placidity of a six-foot-two five-star general.
He’d never served for Uncle Sam, nor had he cowed to any man or woman since crawling out from under his parents’ strong-willed thumbs when he was sixteen. And he had no plans to start bowing down now.
Even George’s tyrant of a father had known better than to treat him with anything less than grudging respect—respect he’d worked hard to earn and keep every day of the fifteen years he’d invested in helping build Sugar Hill into one of the premier tobacco estates in the state of Georgia, if not the whole southern United States. And he wasn’t going to give that up. Not to a woman who, even in heels, was hardly taller than his nine-year-old daughter. Not that he considered this woman remotely a child. Or even childlike.
She was definitely all grown up. That was as plain as the scattering of freckles over her trim nose. He practically tasted her womanly sensuality on the air. In fact, he was forced to fight another ridiculous and disturbing urge, this time to capture her face in his hands and trace the pad of his thumb over her lips before lowering his mouth to hers.
Would she taste of salt, or of the strawberries her lips reminded him of? If he set that neat bundle of coppery-coloured hair caged in black netting under her hat free, would it fall in silken waves, or wild, Medusa-like curls?
What the hell did it matter? She was George’s widow. His new boss. Sugar Hill’s new owner. And if he wanted to retain some semblance of authority and respect in the eyes of the people he still managed—for now—he’d best start acting like their boss.