Authors: Thief of My Heart
For David …
… for everything
You took my breath away from me
My thoughts you stole uncaringly
By day you lead a merry chase
By night I long for your embrace
Too late to say how it did start
I yield to you, thief of my heart
Denver, Colorado Territory, May 1872
HE LETTER LAY ON
the cluttered desktop. One solitary sheet, it was a thin laid linen with ragged edges, as fine a writing material as could be bought.
Dillon Lockwood had recognized it at once as his brother’s stationery, although the unfamiliar hand had puzzled him. It was delicate where Frederick’s was bold, and precise where Frederick’s tended to sprawl. But the neatly penned message had answered his unspoken question with one startling, crushing sentence:
…and so, as Frederick’s widow, I regret to inform you of your brother’s untimely death.
Now the letter lay where he had flung it, still creased where the folds of the past weeks were permanently imprinted. But if the ivory-colored paper had been forgotten, the terrible news it bore still weighed heavily on Dillon Lockwood’s mind.
Frederick was dead.
At one time he’d hated his older half-brother. As a boy, Frederick had enjoyed a comfortable home, while Dillon and his mother had eked out a meager existence on the fringes of society. Frederick had received all the respect due a son of the esteemed Kimbell and Allen dynasties, while Dillon had always known just who he was: the bastard son of Miles Dillon Kimbell.
But that hatred—that jealousy—had faded long ago. It had taken years, but he’d come to accept that his birth had not been Frederick’s fault. Frederick had just been the most convenient target for his pain all those terrible years in the town of Kimbell.
Dillon stood at the unadorned window of his office and stared blindly at the activity in the street below.
It was Frederick who had unwittingly been the force behind his own desire to succeed; Dillon knew that now. How determined he’d been to prove that he could amass the fortune, the property, and even the place in society that Frederick had been born to expect as his due. The Kimbells had made their fortune in lumber, the Allen family had made theirs in shipping. Lockwood Enterprises had made fortunes in both, not to mention in construction in the fast-growing city of Denver.
Dillon ran a callused hand through his thick black hair, then slid one finger along the treble-carved mahogany window frame. He’d built his entire fortune just to show Frederick. And yet paradoxically, Frederick had been proud of his bastard brother’s business successes. Then when the family businesses had floundered during the War between the States and the elder Kimbell had died, Frederick had come to Dillon for help.
It had been an unlikely alliance—Frederick’s longtime connections, Dillon’s indefatigable drive, and the combined clout of their money. Yet it had worked.
At first they’d kept their business interests separate. But as they’d prospered, this arrangement had become a stumbling block, based as it had been primarily on Dillon’s foolish pride. Now almost everything was bound up in co-ownership. Except for Lockwood Lumber and Frederick’s little school.
Dillon’s dark musings were interrupted by a knock at the door. When Neal Camden stuck his head in, Dillon waved him entrance, then moved to a marble-topped console table and poured them each a whiskey.
Dillon grimaced, then tossed the amber liquid down in one stinging gulp. “Frederick’s dead.”
“What! When did this happen?”
“Three weeks ago, according to this letter from his widow.” He picked up the letter and stared at it once more.
Neal took a sip from his glass. “I’m sorry to hear that, Dillon. I didn’t realize Frederick was married.”
“He wasn’t. At least, not till now.”
Neal raised his blonde brows and his expression turned from interested friend to intrigued lawyer. “Let me see that letter.”
After a quick perusal of the carefully written message, he looked up at Dillon.
“If she’s his widow, then she’s your business partner now.”
she’s his widow.”
“You doubt it?”
“Damn right, I doubt it!” Dillon snapped. He grabbed the letter, glared down at it, then crumpled it in his fist.
“Mrs. Leatrice Eugenia Montgomery Kimbell is what she’s calling herself, but I’ll stake my life that she’s nothing but a greedy little gold digger. She saw an opportunity when Frederick died and took advantage of it.”
“That’ll be hard to prove. How can you be sure she didn’t marry him? She’d have to be a fool to attempt such a deception.”
Dillon turned his head to stare at Neal. “Many a fool has gambled for far smaller stakes than Frederick’s estate.” He looked away. “My half-brother and I may have had our differences in the beginning, and God knows we didn’t agree on everything. But as time went on, we began to understand each other. And respect each other. He never married…he never married because he didn’t like women. At least, not in that way.” He cleared his throat. “But he hated that part of himself. Hated it and fought it. I’ve always thought that was why he turned that big old house out in the middle of nowhere into a charm school for spoiled little rich girls. It was his way of avoiding everything.”
His jaw tightened as he realized that he would truly miss his older brother. Had Frederick ever known how much he meant to him? A sudden mist clouded his eyes, but he sternly willed it away. His fingers drummed an agitated rhythm on the table.
“This woman has shown up calling herself his widow, but I’m not about to give up all that Frederick and I built on the basis of this one letter. No”—he stood up and tossed the offending bit of paper into the empty hearth—“she’s an imposter, and all she wants is Frederick’s hard-won fortune. But she’s not going to steal even one thin dime from him—or from me.”
Kimbell, Louisiana, May 1872
ACIE MONTGOMERY MANAGED A
smile only with considerable effort.
“Yes, Mrs. Mooring, the school has suffered a great loss. I’m not sure how we shall go on without Frederick. We will simply have to manage the best we can.”
“Oh, and I’m sure you will. I’m sure you will. Of course, there’s your own personal loss to deal with as well.” The woman cocked her head curiously so that her fuzzy sausage curls fell along her plump cheeks.
Lacie lowered her gaze to a selection of lace collars in the glass-topped display case. She’d known this would happen and had tried to prepare herself by anticipating the inquisitive looks and the prying questions. But how many times in one day must she run this gamut?
“I was heartbroken when Frederick died,” she murmured. That, at least, was not a lie. He had been teacher, father, brother, and friend to her. The problem was, he had not been her husband.
No matter how often she told herself that this deception of hers was justified—indeed, it was an absolute necessity if Sparrow Hill School for Young Ladies were to survive—she still could not shake off her feelings of guilt.
“And the pair of you so newly wed,” Mrs. Mooring persisted, her eyes bright with the inveterate gossip’s curiosity.
Lacie lifted her head and smiled grimly at the storekeeper’s portly wife. “Barely a week before he—” She pressed a plain linen handkerchief to her mouth. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather not speak of it.”
That was true as well, Lacie thought as she made her way out of Mooring’s Dry Goods. She did not want to speak of Frederick’s death at all, for with every word she seemed to be digging a deeper and deeper hole for herself.
Still, it had been four weeks since Frederick had died. Surely the worst of the gossip was over, she reasoned. If she could just remain in quiet mourning all summer, by the time the students returned in the fall, everything would be smoothed over. Her biggest trial would be to get through the coming graduation ceremony.
Lacie was resolute as she made her way down the two blocks that constituted the town of Kimbell’s main thoroughfare. She kept her face carefully downcast and murmured only a word or two to those she passed. But her back was straight and her stride determined as she crossed the street to meet Leland at the wagon.
“I settled the bill with Mrs. Mooring. Is everything in the wagon?”
“Yes, ma’am. I got it all.” Leland hefted himself onto the high wooden seat and took up the reins. It was only when Lacie stood patiently on the plank walk, looking pointedly at him, that he started in realization. If anyone could be both embarrassed and put out, the old black servant certainly was. He was muttering under his breath as he shuffled around the team of horses to Lacie’s side.
“I never been no driver to the ladies.”
“I know, Leland.”
“Mr. Frederick, he never needed no hand up.”
“I’m sure he didn’t.” Lacie made the high step, then carefully smoothed her skirts and settled onto the seat. She watched Leland make his way back around the wagon once more, then waited until he too was seated. “There are many things that will be different now that Frederick is gone,” she began. “But all of us must cope.”
Leland did not answer. He only kept his eyes on the road as he guided the horses through town. But his very silence weighed most heavily upon Lacie. She fought down an urge to slump in defeat as she considered what lay ahead. Only the stringent reminder that proper ladies always sat unbowed with their heads up and their backs straight kept her from caving in then and there. It was one thing to maintain a facade before Mrs. Mooring and the rest of the townfolk. But Leland was a part of Sparrow Hill School for Young Ladies. If he didn’t support her—if the others didn’t either—then how could she go on?
Despite her prim exterior and her neatly folded, cotton-gloved hands, Lacie was on the brink of tears as they neared the edge of town. So caught up was she in her depressing thoughts that she hardly noticed Leland stopping, except when the meager breeze they’d enjoyed stopped as well.
Lacie wiped the dampness from her brow. When she spoke, her voice was sharper than she’d intended.
“Do get along, Leland. We’ve no need to be stopping, especially before such an unsavory place.”
Leland’s eyes stared straight ahead and his lower lip jutted out petulantly.
“Mr. Frederick, he done always stopped at the Half Moon on the way home. He always brought me out a little glass of whiskey.”
Lacie’s mouth dropped open in surprise. She could not imagine Frederick Allen Kimbell ever setting foot in a tavern, let alone encouraging someone in his care to actually partake of spirits. Yet as the moment stretched out and Leland did not budge, she realized it was true.
“But surely you cannot think that—that
could go into—into…” Lacie crumpled her handkerchief in her hand and blinked back tears. The old man’s head sank lower between his shoulders, and his chin began to quiver.
“But Mr. Frederick—” he choked and wiped his eyes with the back of one large fist. “He done always looked out for me. Who’s gonna look out for poor ol’ Leland now?”
It was the final blow for Lacie. Her simple square of linen was woefully inadequate for her tears as she tried to stanch the flow. It was small consolation that the wagon finally did lurch forward, for once the tears began, they would not be stayed. It was awful enough to have lost dear Frederick. She truly did not know how any of them would cope without his reassuring presence. But to have all his responsibilities on her shoulders—the school, the students and their families, the teaching staff, and now even Leland’s terrible sorrow…