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By Sandra Brown
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The moment Lauren Holbrook walked into the Texas mansion, she knew she'd been tricked. Instead of asking her to become a secretary, wealthy matriarch Olivia Lockett proposes a scandalous offer: to marry Jared Lockett, her rebellious son and heir to the dynasty, in name only.
Lauren can't know Olivia's real motive, but she's achingly aware of her feelings for Jared. Now, in spite of terrible risks, she has to trust her reckless husband. She has strong feelings for him . . . but are they strong enough?
Table of Contents
A Preview of Friction
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The heat from the September sun was like a physical assault to the young woman who stepped down from the train at the Austin depot. Her ivory cheeks were slightly flushed, and a few vagrant tendrils of raven-black hair escaped the chignon under her hat. She fanned a lacy handkerchief in front of her face as she eagerly scanned the crowd for a familiar brown Stetson, and the tall, white-haired man who would be wearing it.
A sizable throng had gathered at the depot for the arrival of the noon train from Fort Worth. Families embraced returning prodigals, while others waved goodbye to passengers boarding the train. Commissions to write soon and be careful were issued in a cacophonous blend of English and Spanish, with the train's hissing white steam and sharp whistle providing the percussion for this discordant orchestra. With amazing alacrity, porters wheeled long, flatbed carts loaded with luggage, managing to skirt old ladies, businessmen, and young children.
Mexican women dressed in bright, full skirts strolled the platform hawking homemade candy, flowers, and Texas souvenirs. Vaqueros leaned lazily against the depot wall, toying with lariats, rolling cigarettes, or squinting at the train they were reluctant to board, for they preferred open spaces and the cerulean ceiling of the Texas sky to the narrow confines of a railroad car.
Many of these cowboys noticed the young woman who watched each approaching carriage expectantly. Her gray eyes, which had been so full of excitement only minutes ago, became clouded with anxiety as the crowd began to diminish. The folds of her skirt swished behind her enticingly as she walked the length of the platform and back again. Dainty, high-button shoes tapped on the smooth boards with each step.
One by one, the vaqueros sauntered toward the train bound back to Fort Worth. Most cast one last, longing look at the girl who, despite the heat and her obvious agitation, maintained a cool appearance.
With a screech of steel on steel, a geyser of steam, and a long blast of the whistle, the train slowly inched away from the depot, gained momentum, and finally chugged out of sight.
The platform emptied of people. The Mexican vendors covered the wares in their baskets, and the porters parked their carts in the shade of the building.
The girl in the navy-blue serge suit, white shirtwaist, and tan felt hat stood beside her meager luggage looking forlorn and lonely.
Ed Travers bustled out the depot door, sighted the girl, and, tugging his vest over his rotund stomach, hurried toward her.
"Miss Holbrook?" he inquired politely. "Miss Lauren Holbrook?"
The dismayed eyes brightened at the sound of her name and she smiled, parting perfectly formed lips to reveal small white teeth. "Yes," she answered breathlessly. "Yes, I'm Lauren Holbrook. Did Ben… uh… Mr. Lockett send you for me?"
Ed Travers covered his bafflement with a reassuring smile. "No, Miss Holbrook, not exactly. I'm Ed Travers, the depot manager. I'm sorry I kept you waiting, but the telegraph machine—" He broke off, impatient with himself for bungling what was already a delicate situation. "Forgive me for rambling and forcing you to stand in this heat. Come with me and I'll explain everything." He signaled to a lounging porter, who reluctantly came forward to carry Lauren's luggage.
Mr. Travers indicated the end of the platform by tipping his bowler hat. Still Lauren hesitated. "But Mr. Lockett told me—"
"Mr. Lockett did come for you, Miss Holbrook, but he fell ill and asked—"
"Ben is ill?" she asked quickly, paling and clutching the station manager's arm in alarm.
Her reaction stunned Ed Travers. Why did she keep referring to Ben Lockett? What was this girl to that old buzzard? She was beautiful. No question about that. And Ben had always had an eye for the ladies. Everyone in Texas knew what kind of marriage Ben had with Olivia, but even so, this girl was perplexing. Where did she come from? Why had she come to Texas to see Ben Lockett? She could be no more than twenty, and Ben was in his sixties. Maybe she was a relative. She certainly didn't look like a doxy. And why would Ben be setting up a mistress? He had—
"Mr. Travers, please." Lauren was anxiously waiting for an explanation, and the pleasant, kindly man was studying her with an unsettling intensity. Having arrived after an arduous trip from her home in North Carolina only to find that Ben was not here to meet her was disconcerting enough. Of course, he had warned her that if he couldn't leave Coronado, he would send someone else to greet her. "Is Mr. Lockett ill?"
"Ben?" Travers asked distantly. Then, clearing his throat, he said, "No, not Ben. I guess he sent Jared after you, and he's the one who's sick."
He was leading her down the platform with an encouraging hand under her elbow.
"Jared?" she asked.
My God! She didn't even know Jared! But then, it would be distressing to think that this lovely young woman had anything to do with him. It all came back to Ben. What was his game this time? He had a reputation for practical jokes and surprises, usually embarrassing for the recipient. But would Ben's legendary humor extend to victimizing an innocent like Miss Holbrook? In the few moments he had spent with her, Ed Travers had inferred that Lauren Holbrook was trusting and naive to a fault, uncommon as that was in this third year of the twentieth century.
"Jared is Ben's son, Miss Holbrook," he answered patiently. "Didn't Ben ever mention him to you?"
Lauren laughed easily. "Oh, yes. He told me he had a son. I don't recall if he told me his name, though." Her smile faded into an expression of genuine concern. "He's ill?"
"In a manner of speaking," Travers said gruffly, taking her arm more firmly as they descended the steps to the ground below. Lauren saw a long, flatbed wagon parked several yards ahead of them. The green paint on its sideboards was faded and peeling, the wheels mud-splattered. Its two horses were grazing at a tuft of grass under the enormous pecan tree.
Another horse, a palomino of magnificent proportions, was tied to the end of the wagon. Proudly he tossed his blond mane as if protesting the indignity of being hitched to such a lowly vehicle.
"Apparently, Miss Holbrook, Ben sent young Jared for you, and he came from Coronado last night. This morning, when he became incapacitated, he asked me to escort you to his home. I'm afraid the trip won't be very comfortable. I apologize, but this was the best conveyance I could find on short notice."
"I'm sure I'll be fine." She smiled. Ed Travers became dizzy under the radiance of her face and gentle voice. Then he cursed himself for being an old fool and hastened toward the wagon.
The depot manager assisted Lauren onto the rickety seat. As the porter dropped her bags unceremoniously onto the rough floor of the wagon bed, she heard a muffled moan.
She gasped in surprise when she saw the long figure sprawled on his back in the wagon. "Mr. Travers!" she exclaimed. "Is he seriously injured?"
"No," he answered. "Only a little indisposed. He'll live, though he may soon wish he were dead." He mumbled the last few words, and his meaning escaped Lauren.
She settled herself as best she could on the uncomfortable seat. The brown leather was cracked. At intervals where it had ripped open, the stuffing poked through in hard lumps. The rusted springs groaned under her slight weight. She kept her gaze focused on the road ahead.
"I must run back inside for a moment, Miss Holbrook, and speak to my assistant. If you'll indulge me, we'll be on our way without further delays." Ed Travers doffed his hat again and turned back toward the depot. The porter shuffled after him.
Lauren sighed. Well, it's not the greeting I expected, but it's novel, she thought. Then she smiled with the sheer joy of being in Texas and almost at the end of her journey. Had it been only three weeks since she last saw Ben? It seemed like eons. So much had happened since he had visited her guardians and issued the impulsive invitation for her to come to Texas.
They had all been in the parlor of the parsonage. Lauren was pouring tea, which was one of her chores when Reverend Abel Prather and his wife, Sybil, entertained. Guests visited often with the middle-aged couple, who had opened their home to Lauren when her clergyman father died eight years ago. She loved the Prathers, though she realized they were unenlightened about anything outside their sphere. Most of their callers were either other ministers or parishioners.
Their guest on that particular day had been unique. Ben Lockett had served in the Confederate Army with the young Chaplain Prather during the last three years of the war. Their philosophies differed greatly, but the two men enjoyed each other's company and found pleasure in taking opposing sides of any debate, whether over the strength of the Union Army or predestination.
After the war, Ben Lockett had left his native Virginia for unknown parts of Texas. He was of a breed of ambitious, angry young men who defiantly carved empires out of the vast plains of Texas. In the forty years since the War Between the States, Ben Lockett had become an influential cattle baron.
Lauren was intrigued by the imposing Texan. He stood tall and lean, with only the slightest paunch to indicate his advancing years. His hair was thick and snowy white, brushed back from his wide, deep forehead like a crest. Blue eyes twinkled merrily from under shaggy white eyebrows, as if he were perpetually amused by the world. But Lauren observed that Ben was capable of a piercing, glacial stare if his emotions dictated it.
His voice was deep and mellow when he said to her, "Tell me, Miss Holbrook, what you think of Texas. Like most Texans, I feel that everyone should be as enthralled with my country as I am." He stared at her from under the shaggy brows, but it was a friendly look.
"I… I don't know that much about it, Mr. Lockett," she replied honestly. "I've read about the Alamo, and I know that the state was once a republic. The rest of my knowledge is confined to the penny-novel book covers that I see on display at the general store. They depict train robberies, cattle rustling, and saloons. I don't know if that is a true characterization or not."
Ben threw back his head with its shock of white hair and roared with laughter. The booming sound rattled the china figurines that cluttered every conceivable space in Sybil Prather's overdecorated parlor.
"Well, we have our share of train robberies, and I've frequented a few saloons myself, begging your pardon, Abel. I've even chased a few rustlers all the way to Mexico." He paused. "Maybe the pictures you've seen are accurate at that, Miss Holbrook." He studied her for a moment longer, then challenged, "Why don't you come back to Texas with me and see it for yourself?"
There were several startled exclamations.
"Ben, you're joking, of course! I'd forgotten what a tease you are." Abel laughed.
"Let my Lauren go to Texas where Indians live!" Sybil cried. The ruffles covering her ample bosom quivered with distress.
"What an utterly preposterous suggestion!" came from William.
William. Yes, William Keller had been there, too.
Lauren shuddered, even in the stifling heat. She pushed the thought of William out of her mind. She wasn't going to let the memory of him ruin her reunion with Ben Lockett.
Another groan, accompanied this time by a mumbled curse, diverted her from her reverie. Hesitantly she swiveled her head to look at the ailing man. Her eyes lighted first on an ornately tooled saddle, with filigreed silver decorations glittering against the black leather. Her bags were at the back of the wagon, near the man's feet.
He must be very tall, Lauren thought as she quickly scanned the length of the prone body. Her initial impression was that he was lean and well proportioned. After that first hasty appraisal, she began at his boots and studied the figure with increasing fascination.
The black boots were of smooth leather and came to just under his knees. Tight black chinos were tucked into the tops of them. Lauren blushed at the perfect fit of the pants, which contoured the long, muscled things like a second skin.
Lauren's breath caught in her throat, and she stared as one hypnotized at the bulge between his thighs. The tight pants emphasized and detailed his anatomy. To Lauren, who was raised in deliberate ignorance of the opposite sex, it was a bold display. How could anyone be so flagrantly nonchalant about his… person? she wondered.
Her palms grew moist within her gloves.
She forced her eyes to move from his crotch. The buff-colored shirt was shoved sloppily into his belted waistband. Only the last two buttons of the shirt were closed, and the soft fabric fell away from a broad chest that rose and fell with his even breathing. The wide chest tapered to a flat belly and was covered with light brown hair that glinted with golden highlights as the sun filtered through the branches of the pecan tree and shone on him.
Lauren had never seen a man shirtless before. Once a member of Reverend Prather's congregation had caught a deadly fever and she had glimpsed his upper torso as one of the married women in attendance had bathed him. The sufferer was fat; his skin was pink; and his chest was smooth and hairless. No, he had looked nothing like this.
Lauren swallowed hard and pressed her hand against the fluttering in her stomach.
Jared Lockett groaned again, and she held her breath, afraid that he would awaken and find her looking at him with this shameful temerity. But he only sighed, making a deep hollow of his stomach under his rib cage. His hand moved onto his chest, where it stirred restlessly before remaining still. The hand was tanned and large, with strong, slim fingers. The same sun-bleached hair that covered his chest sprinkled the back of his hand.
A strong column of throat extended from the powerful shoulders. Lauren raised her eyes to his face and was crushingly disappointed. His features were covered by a black, flat-crowned, wide-brimmed hat. Her curiosity was piqued by this son of Ben's, and she wanted to view the face that belonged to this long, hard body.
Lauren almost jumped when Ed Travers said briskly, "There. I think we can leave now."
So engrossed was she with Jared Lockett's form that she hadn't noticed the man returning from his errand.
"You are extremely kind to do this, Mr. Travers." Lauren's level voice surprised her. The tickling sensation in her stomach had spread into her chest and throat. These symptoms of "the vapors" were uncharacteristic of the usually serene Lauren Holbrook.
"No problem at all," Travers hastened to assure her.
He clucked to the bedraggled horses and began maneuvering them through the traffic on the streets of the state's capital. They dodged trolleys, buggies, and horseback riders as they made their way through the city. There were no motorcars, which Lauren had seen on recent trips to Raleigh.
She enjoyed looking at the capitol building from the different angles their route afforded her. "I think you're justifiably proud of your capitol building. I've read about it. It's very impressive."
Travers smiled. "The red granite came from a quarry near the Lockett ranch."
"Keypoint," Lauren said. She remembered Ben's proud voice as he told her about the ranch. Her comment on its clever name, which used a play on words with Lockett and Keypoint, caused him to beam at her astuteness. "You'd be surprised at how few people catch that," he said. As he grinned broadly, the furrows on either side of his mouth deepened into facsimiles of dimples.
Lauren smiled at the memory, and Travers glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. So she knew about Keypoint. Did she also know who lived there? Conversationally he asked, "Have you ever been to Texas before, Miss Holbrook?"
"No, I haven't. That's why I was delighted to accept Ben's invitation to come and stay with his family for a while."
The wagon lurched when Travers suddenly jerked on the reins. She was going to stay with them? In the house in Coronado? Or at Keypoint? Either place was inconceivable. This girl was as innocent as the day was long. Had Ben Lockett gone mad?
They were outside the city now and heading west on the well-traveled road. When Lauren pulled the long pins out of her hat, Travers warned her, "I wouldn't take that off if I were you, Miss Holbrook. Our sun is hot. You might get a burn on that pretty nose."
Lauren agreed and readjusted her hat, but slipped out of her jacket. The slight breeze stirred by the movement of the wagon cooled her damp skin somewhat.
When she was settled again, Travers returned to his thoughts. That wild buck in the back of the wagon was enough reason not to keep any decent woman under the same roof with him.
Jared Lockett was notorious throughout the state for whoring and drinking. When he was younger, his activities had been deemed "sowing wild oats," but since he had passed his thirtieth birthday, they had become a matter of public scorn. When was Jared going to start acting responsibly? No time soon, Travers mused glumly.
Just last month, Jared had caused a big disturbance at the Rosenburg depot. He and some of his feckless cronies had gone into the Harvey House there and had spent the afternoon drinking and gambling. They had made their presence known in the restaurant by behaving like a pack of wild dogs. Jared made an unseemly proposition to one of the more winsome Harvey girls. The girls who worked as waitresses in the restaurant chain that served the Santa Fe Railroad were known for their scrupulous morals. If a man proposed anything to one of those young ladies, it had better be nothing less than marriage and a vine-covered cottage.
When the girl summarily rejected his suggestion, Jared had become more aggressive. The management had ejected him from the place, but not before Jared, fighting like a demon out of hell, had wreaked havoc on furniture, dishes, and a few of the patrons. It had taken six men to subdue him.
Well, sighed Travers mentally, it was probably just as well that this young woman didn't know about Jared Lockett's antics. They would no doubt scare her to death.
"Is it always this hot in September?" Lauren asked, trying to draw the station manager into conversation. She had had years of practice making small talk in the Prathers' parlor. Mr. Travers had been kind to her, but she was made uneasy by the wrinkled brow and the puzzled expression that would cross his face whenever he looked at her. Was she that different from the women in Texas?
"Yeah," he answered, reassuring her with his easy, open smile. "We usually get our first norther about the end of October. Most years, September is hotter than June or even July. Is it this warm in…?" He let the question trail off suggestively, and she didn't disappoint him.
"North Carolina. I lived—live—in Clayton. It's a small town not too far from Raleigh. And no, it's not this hot there in September."
"Is that where you met Ben?" he asked curiously. At her affirmative nod, he prodded, "And what was Ben doing in Clayton, North Carolina?"
Lauren explained the friendship between her guardian and the rancher. "For years, they corresponded, but the letters had lagged for the past decade or so. Still, on his way home from a business trip to New York, Ben decided to pay his old friend a visit."
"How long have you lived with this guardian?" Was he being too nosy? He didn't want to offend her, and no man in his right mind would cross Ben Lockett. However, she answered him readily enough and without self-consciousness.
"My father was a clergyman, too. Abel Prather was his bishop. I was twelve when my father died. The Prathers gave me a home with them."
"Your mother?" Travers asked quietly.
"I was three when she died giving birth. The baby—a boy—was stillborn." Her voice was suddenly soft and pensive. Travers noted that she touched the brooch watch pinned to her shirtwaist just above the gentle swell of her breast.
The small brooch was all she had of her mother's possessions. That and a picture taken of her parents on their wedding day. She vainly tried to remember moments she had shared with the pretty, petite woman in the picture, but no memories would come. Lauren had no inkling of the personality that had lived behind the shy eyes captured in the photograph. In stressful times, or when she longed for the parent she couldn't remember, she touched the watch with her fingertips as if the action brought her in contact with her mother. But this was a habit Lauren wasn't conscious of.
After his young wife's death, Gerald Holbrook had totally dedicated himself to his work. He delved into religious dogma and contemplated theological doctrines in the hours when he wasn't actively serving his congregation or preparing his inspired sermons. If the care of his young daughter fell to his current housekeeper, that was the price one had to pay for absolute commitment to Christ. Lauren knew that, in his way, her father loved her and wasn't bitter over his neglect—though she felt it. She would have welcomed a more demonstrative relationship, but knew her father lived on a higher plane—like God.
She was a well-behaved child, quiet and unobtrusive as she sat near her father when he studied in his library. She learned to read at an early age, and books and the characters in them became her playmates and confidantes. Her classmates weren't particularly inclined to include the "preacher's kid" in their pranks. Out of loneliness, Lauren acquired a talent for creating her own diversions.
When Gerald Holbrook died, Lauren barely missed him. She moved into the Prathers' house and assumed their routine without question. They were kind and, because of their childlessness, welcomed the adolescent girl into their home. Their generosity extended to giving Lauren piano lessons. She was musically gifted, and the piano became a passion along with literature.
No one ever left the Prathers' gaudy, crowded house without knowing their pride in Lauren. She had never betrayed their trust or disappointed them.
Except with William. How unfair was their changed attitude toward her! She was blameless!
"Miss Holbrook?" Ed Travers asked for the third time, and finally succeeded in gaining her attention.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Travers. What did you say?" Lauren flushed under her hat at being caught so deep in her own thoughts.
"I asked if you would like a drink of water," he said, reaching under the seat for a canteen, which he had filled before leaving the depot.
"Oh, yes, thank you." Lauren reached for the canteen. Never having drunk from one, she felt like a pioneer as she tipped it back and took a tentative, ladylike sip.
Just then, the wagon hit a deep rut in the road, and some of the water sloshed onto her shirtwaist. She wiped her dripping chin and laughed delightedly. Her merriment was checked when the figure in the back of the wagon groaned and cursed vehemently.
Lauren whirled her head around so quickly that the motion hurt her neck. Jared's hand came up and clamped the hat more firmly over his face. He adjusted his long body to another position, contracting and relaxing muscles that Lauren didn't know existed. But then, she had never seen a masculine physique like this before. His languid movements were repelling and thrilling at the same time. It was like watching some pagan god who was beautiful even in his decadence.
She looked at Ed Travers, who was blushing furiously. "I'm sorry about that, Miss Holbrook. Don't pay any attention to his language. He—"
She interrupted with a question. "What's the matter with him?" She was afraid that Ben's son was seriously ill.
"He… uh… must've tied one on last night." When Travers realized her total lack of comprehension, he reluctantly explained. She might as well learn about Jared now. "He drank too much, don't you see," he said anxiously, "and got—"
"Drunk?" she asked incredulously. "He's got a hangover?" She stared with fixed horror at the prone figure. Never in her twenty years had she witnessed intoxication. A cordial glass of sherry and wine with Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners were the extent of alcohol consumption in the parsonage.
Jared had apparently slipped back into unconsciousness. Gentle snores were coming from under the black hat.
"Yes. Please don't fret about it, Miss Holbrook. It happens all the time. We're just lucky the sheriff didn't pick him up and take him to jail to sleep it off. Fortunately he made it to my office early this morning and asked me to meet your train and drive the two of you to Coronado. He passed out about an hour before you arrived."
"Ben told me that if he couldn't come to Austin himself, he'd send someone else. I imagine that Jared wasn't too happy over being appointed the emissary," Lauren commented.
"Whether he liked it or not, he knew he'd better do what his daddy told him to. Despite their differences, Jared respects his father."
Lauren sniffed as she cast one last reproachful glance over her shoulder. "I can't see that Jared Lockett has much respect for anyone or anything."
Ed Travers chuckled as he diverted the wagon around another collection of deep ruts. "You're probably right, Miss Holbrook."
He turned his attention to private musings, and conversation between them waned. Lauren gazed at the landscape around her.
Ben had told her he lived in the hill country, and her eyes could testify to that. Gently rolling hills covered with grass turning brown in the last days of summer surrounded them. They were driving west out of Austin, and on the right a cypress tree–lined river cheerfully wended its way through the rocky ground. Cattle grazed among small cedar trees.
As the sun slipped lower on the horizon, it became hotter. Lauren could feel rivulets of perspiration coursing down her scalp. She longed to whisk off her hat, release her heavy hair from its restricting pins, and allow what little breeze there was to blow through it.
Her hair had been the scourge of every housekeeper who had worked for Gerald Holbrook. Its washing and combing had been a constant source of muttered grumblings. Mrs. Dorothea Harris, an embittered widow who had been housekeeper from the time Lauren was seven until her father died, had declared that the girl had enough hair for six children. Each morning, she roughly pulled it into braids that were so tight they brought tears to Lauren's eyes. Lauren's father had said in a rare compliment that her thick black hair was like her mother's. In this Lauren took secret pride.
Of course, it was out of the question to take her hair down now. It wouldn't do at all to arrive at the Locketts' house without a hat, let alone with unbound hair.
- On Sale
- Oct 1, 1994
- Page Count
- 384 pages