Sweeten the Swindler(3)

By: Dallis Adams

"Ah, here she comes."

He glanced toward Coco's Chapeaus and saw Miss Sweeten as she closed the milliner's front door.

"Follow me." Winslett motioned Jake to follow.

Jake squared his shoulders. He supposed that to meet her by being introduced by the most respected man in town would only further his cause.

BUTTERFLIES ERUPTED in Maxine's stomach when she saw Atherton approaching with the good-looking stranger in tow. In tow? No, on second thought, the stranger could never be a follower. He seemed too independent, and much too dangerous to be in tow of anybody.

Wearing a cream-colored shirt under a dark waistcoat that emphasized those broad shoulders, and that trim waist, he prowled toward her. The way those powerful leg muscles bunched and relaxed beneath trousers that seemed too snug made his movements sleek, smooth— like the panther she'd seen a month ago that lived in the Sierra Nevada mountains close to town.

Off and on throughout the week, she'd seen him around town. Sometimes she'd felt like a rabbit being watched by the feline predator, which was silly.

Get hold of yourself, Maxie.

Maybe it was because she'd never seen a man of his ilk in town before.

"Good afternoon, Maxine." Atherton stopped in front of her and gave her a gentle pat on the shoulder.

She ignored the stranger. Perhaps that was rude, but she had to regain her equilibrium before the inevitable introduction that she was sure Atherton was going to make. Because as of this moment she wasn't certain if her voice or her words would come out right if she looked at him. So she took a deep breath, and turned to give the town founder a warm smile. "Good afternoon to you too, Atherton."

"I'd like you to meet Jake Stark from Whisper Railroad in San Francisco. Jake, this is Maxine Sweeten, as sugary as her surname."

Those bright, predator-like eyes pierced hers. "How do you do, ma'am."

Before she knew what he planned to do, he reached down to grasp her hand in his strong one. Then he bent to kiss her fingers. She nearly gasped as his warm breath caressed her hand. His lips felt soft but firm— if that made any sense— as they brushed over her knuckles. The intimacy of the act had her toes curling, her face heating and tiny sparks tingling the tips of her ears—a reaction she'd never before experienced. She felt awkward, inept, and totally out of her depth. He was nothing like the men— who were really more like boys compared to him— that she knew in Blessings. "How do you do, Mr. Stark."

To her utter relief, she didn't sound breathless, nor did her voice squeak. Of course not.

Then it hit her. San Francisco? That high falutin' city, where city slickers resided.

Who did he think he was, kissing her hand like that? Did he think she would salivate all over him? She knew better than to swoon over a man's flowery manners. Oh, she understood all about con artists and their courtly, highly polished behavior that could lure a rabbit to their snare. That's what happened to poor, sweet Mary Price. The young woman's former betrothed was from San Francisco. And he managed to swindle all of her hard-earned money, leaving her not only heart-broken but destitute. Mary had been forced to move in with her parents who lived in the nearby town of Calderon.

As Jake Stark's gaze met hers, she realized he had the most unique silvery-blue eyes she'd ever seen. They were almost like looking into a mirror but without the reflection. With his high cheekbones, his wonderfully straight nose and a firm jaw line, he was possibly the finest-looking man she'd met in a long while, maybe in forever. Even the thin, white scar that cut horizontally through his left brow didn't detract from his ruggedly fine looks.

"What brings you to Blessings, Mr. Stark?"

"I'm a surveyor for Whisper Railroad," he replied with a smile.

"Oh?" She hadn't heard of Whisper Railroad, or any plans to bring the railroad so close to Blessings. "Where are you surveying?"

"East from Carson City, Nevada through the Sierra Nevada mountains to San Francisco. Since Blessings is in the vicinity, I'm surveying here to find the best place to branch off to Sacramento."

"To be absolutely honest with you, Mr. Stark, I've never heard of Whisper Railroad."

He gave her a cool look. "We are new to the business, in fact the first railroad company in California since its induction to the United States."