A shadow fell over her.
She squinted up at the man standing before her, silhouetted against the sun. He was a dark shape without features against the bright light. It was impossible to read his expression.
“Miss McCormick? Amanda?” His deep voice reverberated up her spine.
“Mr. Baxter?” She shaded her eyes and squinted as she tried to focus on his face.
“Please, call me Travis. I can’t believe you’re really here. I’m so happy to see you.” He moved out of the sunlight and she could finally see him.
Her breath caught. Travis Baxter was even more handsome than she’d pictured him in her daydreams and she was even more nervous than she’d imagined she’d be at this first meeting. Beneath his flat-crowned black hat, dark hair curled over the edge of his white collar. Two slightly up-tilted black eyebrows gave him a quizzical expression and accented, vivid blue eyes glittered with reflected sunlight. He wore a sharp, blue suit with a string tie and a deep burgundy vest. His long legs ended in a pair of fancy black boots. The man didn’t look like a farmer at all. It touched her that he must have bought these brand new, fashionable clothes to impress his soon-to-be bride.
Amanda continued to stare as he took a seat beside her on the bench. It was hard to believe this was the simple, salt of the earth man with whom she’d exchanged correspondence for almost a year, the man with whom she chosen to spend the rest of her life. “Travis Baxter?”
He smiled. “I’m sorry for being so late. I had trouble on the road.” He removed his hat and rested it on one knee. His dark hair lifted in the breeze. “I’m so happy to finally meet you, Amanda. Although we have met before, haven’t we? Your letters made me feel like I’ve known you forever. I can call you Amanda now rather than Miss McCormick, can’t I, since we’re practically husband and wife?”
“Oh… Yes. Of course.” Travis had called her that in his letters for a while now, but it must seem strange to him to say it aloud to a woman he’d only just met in person. He enveloped her hand in his warm grasp. She felt the heat through her thin kid gloves.
“Darling, I’ve dreamed of this day.”
Amanda’s mouth opened, but no words came out. Travis had never once referred to her as “darling” in any of his letters. He was much more effusive in person than she would have expected, not at all like the reserved man she’d come to know through his writing.
“You must be parched and near fainting in this heat. Let’s go to the hotel and have a drink before dinner. I’ve arranged rooms for the night. It’s a long drive home and I thought you’d traveled enough for one day. We’ll head out tomorrow.” Travis stood and drew Amanda to her feet.
“My bags.” She gestured toward her trunk and valises.
“We’ll get them later. Take what you need for the night and the depot manager can store the rest until tomorrow.”
The force of Travis’s strong personality swept her along. A night in a hotel wasn’t what she’d expected. He’d said in his last letter they would be married by the preacher in Reederville before going home to the farm. However, exhausted as she was from the journey and from nerves, it would be nice not to travel any more today and perhaps to enjoy the luxury of a bath at the hotel. Amanda didn’t want to admit even to herself that the idea of the wedding and particularly the wedding night, was beginning to frighten her out of her wits. What would it be like to be intimate with a near stranger?
“How was your trip?” Travis asked.
Amanda selected the small valise she’d used for her night in the sleeper compartment of the train. “It went well. There was a delay while they made a repair and once we had to wait for cattle crossing, but overall the train made good time.”
“Wonderful. And how was leaving home? Difficult?”
“My family wished me well, although they still don’t approve my decision.” It was an understatement. Amanda’s aunt and uncle, who’d raised her since she was eight, thought she was crazy for rejecting the suitable young men of South Haven to travel west and marry a stranger. They didn’t understand the connection that had grown between her and Travis through exchanged letters, how her feelings for him had grown strong enough to allow her to say “yes” to his proposal. “It was hard to say goodbye to them and to my cousins.”
Travis slipped an arm around her waist. His nearness was overwhelming, making her pulse race and her body tingle in unseemly places. Amanda wanted to shy away like a skittish horse.
He cupped the side of her face and kissed her mouth lightly. “I’m sorry to hear that. I’ll do everything I can to keep you from being homesick.”
Her cheeks burned and her lips vibrated with the imprint of his kiss. The brief touch of his hand on her cheek left a phantom pressure behind when he pulled away. The sudden rush of lustful feelings inside shamed her. She felt anyone could see how aroused she was by his soft kiss, but when she glanced at the thinning crowd nearby, no one was even looking at them.
Travis beckoned a porter. “Could you please move my fiancée’s things into storage for the night? We’ll be back for them tomorrow.”
The tall, black man in a navy blue uniform nodded, picked up two of Amanda’s cases and carried them into the depot.
“The El Dorado is nearby and it’s the best hotel in town.” Travis’s hand pressed the small of her back as he led her away from the depot.
Pedestrians plunged across the street whenever there was a break in the heavy traffic. Travis guided Amanda around a pile of steaming dung and hurried her out of the way of an oncoming wagon and onto the sidewalk. His hand at her waist was strong and steady and felt like it was burning right through the fabric of her clothes. She liked the sense of protection he gave her, making her feel safe and cared for. The nervous fears about her wedding night were slowly fading, replaced by an eager curiosity. How frightening could intercourse be if his slightest touch felt so good?
“It’s busy here. Very different from back home,” she said.
Travis slid his hand up her back and rubbed her shoulder. “I hope I can make Kansas feel like home for you.” He turned her toward him and leaned to kiss her lips again, a soft, lingering pressure that made her pulse flutter. Pulling back, he looked down into her eyes. “I’ll certainly try.”
His steady blue gaze seemed to plumb her depths and read her secret thoughts. Amanda’s stomach flipped. Between her legs, the pulsing heat grew. She dropped her gaze and walked on, cheeks flushing.
“Is this the El Dorado?” She stared up at one of the largest buildings on the street with “El Dorado” emblazoned on the sign over the door and felt foolish for asking.
“I hope you like it.” Travis took her elbow to guide her through the door into the hotel.
* * *
Spencer Teague, flush with cash due to some lucky cards the previous night, was in the mood to spend it on a woman, but not the whores and barmaids who were his usual companions. Today he wanted to converse with and make love to a fine, high-class woman outside of his normal sphere, someone who could be an interesting dinner companion as well as assuage his sexual needs. With his charm and luck, maybe he could seduce some Kansas City society matron at the tea room in the El Dorado hotel.
But his afternoon agenda abruptly changed when he saw the woman sitting on the bench in front of the depot. The copper flash of her hair, her elegant features and wide hazel eyes scanning the crowd set his pulse racing. Spence wanted to be the person she was searching for.
His life philosophy had always been simple: “Want. Take. Have.” When he saw the pretty redhead, his loins sprang to life and he sauntered over to find out what her story was and how available she might be. As luck would have it and his luck was almost always good, he got there just in time to hear her tell the station agent her story. Spence learned her name, her destination and all the information he needed about her prospective husband.
Acting on impulse, as was his nature, he decided to play the part of the fiancé and see how far he could get with the lovely Amanda McCormick. It was harmless fun, an intriguing diversion on a sweltering August afternoon. He became Travis Baxter, loving fiancé, on the spot, cajoling her to come with him to the El Dorado with no trouble at all. Her reaction to his kiss was revealing. She was hot and eager for some sexual relief—she just didn’t know it yet.
In the lobby of the hotel, Spence paused a moment to take stock and plan his next move. “Darling, I’ll escort you to the tea room then make sure our rooms are ready and have someone carry your bag up.”
“All right.” Amanda gazed around the opulent lobby of the fanciest hotel in Kansas City and he wagered she’d never seen the like back in Michigan. The floor was covered with expensive carpets and scattered with small gilt chairs and potted ferns. Overhead, fans stirred the stifling air, keeping the hotel a few degrees cooler than the oppressive heat outside.
Spence chose a table in a private, shadowy corner of the tea room and pulled back a chair for Amanda. He stooped to kiss her cheek. “I’ll be right back.”
At the front desk, the concierge perked up when Spence offered him several bills. “I’d like your best room for the night with champagne waiting in the room.”