Authors: Susan Mallery
, an eBook exclusive prequel to Susan Mallery's Lone Star Sisters trilogy!
Who can tame the wildest man in Titanville?
Zeke Titan has a reputation for breaking hearts, but the townspeople of Titanville can't deny all the good he's done for them. So they turn the other cheek as he seduces one schoolteacher after another. Until Alethea Harbaugh comes to town.
The new teacher brings with her a passion for women's rights that invigorates the ladies of Titanville, and instills fear in the men. Zeke is intent on seducing her, if only to send her running, ruined, from the town so that things can return to normal. But Zeke just might have met his matchâ¦in more ways than one!
MEET THE MAN WHO STARTED A LEGACY IN
â¦AND THEN READ SUSAN MALLERY'S PRESENT-DAY TITAN STORIES, BEGINNING IN MAY WITH
UNDER HER SKIN
Zeke Titan had long believed there was nothing more beautiful than Texasâ¦except maybe a willing woman. He'd been missing both for the better part of six months, which explained why he was riding shotgun on a freight wagon, instead of waiting for the daily coach that traveled between Dallas and Titanville.
His business and the cold Yankee winter had kept him away from home for far too long. And the beautiful ladies of New York and Boston hadn't tempted him as they once had. He couldn't say if he had lost the enjoyment of the chase or if he simply missed Titanville.
He'd been born under a lucky star, at least that's what everyone always said. He'd never met an enemy he couldn't turn into a friend, had yet to lose money on any enterprise he invested in and he couldn't be beat at cards. A good life, he told himself. Then why did he feel so restless?
The freight wagon rounded a bend in the road. Up ahead he saw the familiar shapes of the buildings of the town. As always, a group of people stood waiting for the arrival of the bi-weekly freight wagon. There would be supplies for the dry goods store, a sewing machine or two, building material, fabric and whatever else it took to keep a household running. Zeke wouldn't know. He'd been living in the Titanville hotel since he was sixteen when an ace of spades had turned him from a poor orphan into a rich man.
They passed the stables first. Billy Wade yelled something, but Zeke couldn't hear what it was. Then Big John, the blacksmith, called out to him. Zeke held a hand to his ear. Big John ran after the wagon.
As Zeke turned, he saw other men running toward him. Most he recognized, a few he didn't. The crowd behind the wagon grew. As the driver slowed the horses, Zeke jumped down. He held his Winchester loosely, just in case there was trouble.
Billy got to him first. His friend was gasping for breath and holding his side.
“You're back. We've been waitin', Zeke. Waitin' and countin' the days. You gotta help us. We don't know what to do.”
“About what?” Zeke asked, stepping out of the way of those eager to claim their packages.
“There's trouble. Big trouble.” The other men joined Billy, crowding around Zeke. They nodded.
“It's awful,” one man said.
“You won't believe what they're makin' us do.”
Zeke imagined everything from Indians to cattle rustlers.
“The new teacher got here 'bout two days after you left,” Billy said, his eyes wide, his expression frightened.
Zeke relaxed. “You're talking about a woman?”
The men exchanged glances.
“Not just any woman,” Billy told him. “She's different, Zeke. Mrs. Harbaugh brought more than books to town.” He looked around, as if afraid someone might be listening, then lowered his voice. “She's changed them.”
The other men nodded.
“All the women. My Molly never used to talk back to me. Now she has ideas andâ¦” Billy swallowed. “She wants me to listen to her. I told her I was buyin' more cattle and she said no. She said we needed to save money to send our boys to college. In Maryland.”
There was a collective gasp.
“They're tsked,” Big John said, then shuddered.
“Tsked,” Billy told Zeke. “Titanville Society for Knowledge, Empowerment and Devotion. Tsked. If we do something they don't like, they tsk at us. It's to remind us to act right.”
The men looked defeated. Zeke couldn't help it. He laughed. The sound came from deep inside and felt good.
“I'm gone six months and every one of you is running scared because of a woman?” Zeke kept laughing until his sides ached. “That's a good one. You think that up, Billy? It's a fine way to welcome me home. Good for you.”
Billy grabbed his arm. “It's not a joke, Zeke. You've got to do something to help us. You're the only one. We want you to court Alethea Harbaugh. Get her to fall in love with you. All the women do, it won't be hard. Have your way with her, ruin her, then send her back where she came from.”
“I'm not sure her husband will approve of me courting her.”
“She's a widow,” Big John said. “She's powerful, Zeke. There's something about the way she looks at a man. As if she knows every bad thing he's ever done.”
“Why is she here?” Zeke asked, still convinced they were joking. They had to be.
“She's the new schoolteacher,” one of the men said. “The books she's brought with her. Plays by some dead Englishman. Something about a ham. My boys are walking around quoting him all the time. You've gotta stop it!”
Billy sucked in a breath. “Zeke, we're desperate men. We'll do anything you say. Just get that harpy out of town.”
The wagon driver handed down Zeke's trunk. Big John took it and put it on his shoulder as if it weighed less than a chicken. The group of men began moving toward the hotel.
“You get her gone and things will go back the way they were,” old Sam said. “Zeke, we're depending on you. I'll give you first pick of my prize sow's spring litter.”
“I'll butcher it for free,” another man said.
“We'll get together and build you a house, if you want. The biggest house Titanville's ever seen. Just get her to leave.”
Billy nodded. “Anything, Zeke. You can bring your mares to stud with my best stallion.”
These were fine offers, Zeke thought. Generous. Desperate. He'd played enough cards in his life to know when a man was down to his last dollar, and these men were. He couldn't believe they were afraid of a woman. Especially a schoolteacher. Women who preferred books over men were usually lonely and quiet. They were like buds, needing a little sunshine to blossom, and he was happy to provide the heat. But this Mrs. Harbaugh had already known the touch of a man. So there had to be another problem.
“The town pays her salary,” he said. “Why not just have a meeting and vote to fire her?”
Big John shuddered. “We can't. Our wives have already warned us that if we do that, they won't be sharing our beds anymore. You know how much a man needs the warmth of a woman, Zeke.”
Zeke did. It was a threat to be taken seriously. He found himself intrigued by a woman who had inspired such extraordinary loyalty in such a short period of time.
“What's she like?” he asked.
Billy shuddered. “She's a powerful presence. Her eyes are cold and dark.”
“Her skin's all scarred.”
“She walks as stiff as the dead.”
“The cats run from her.”
“My Bessy stopped giving milk the day she came to visit.”
Zeke pulled out his pocket watch. It was a little after three. “Where is she now?”
He faced the men. “I'll take care of Mrs. Harbaugh. She'll be gone in a month.”
They started to cheer, then stopped suddenly and looked around. As if they weren't allowed to be happy anymore.
“You swear?” Billy asked.
“In thirty days Mrs. Harbaugh will no longer be a problem. You have my word.”
He left them clustered together like cattle in a thunderstorm and started up the narrow street. Business had been good, he thought, taking in the two new stores and crowded streets. As he owned more than half the buildings and land in town, that meant his bank account would be full.
He saw there had been improvements, as well as trade. Wooden sidewalks had been started and there were flower boxes in front of many of the storefronts. A large sign in the general-store window proclaimed a meeting the next night for a reading of Shakespeare's
Much Ado About Nothing
. He would guess the “ham” one of the men had complained about was Hamlet. Not many schoolteachers who'd come to Titanville read Shakespeare. He would know. In the past eight years, he'd bedded most of them.
He turned left at the Titanville First Baptist Church, then headed out toward the two-room schoolhouse on the edge of town. When the original smaller building had burned down three years ago, he'd donated the money for the larger structure.
Two boys raced across the schoolyard, a kite flying above them. A few girls sat together, playing jacks. As he approached, a woman stepped out of the schoolhouse, glanced toward him, then shaded her eyes to watch his approach.
From what he'd heard, he'd expected the new schoolteacher to be tall, rail-thin and old. The woman in front of him barely came to his shoulder. She was young and pleasantly rounded with a full bosom. As he got closer, she dropped her hand. The scars someone had complained about were freckles. They went with her flame-red hair. And the cold eyes were, instead, the color of spring grass. Big and green and bright, framed by long lashes.
Her mouth was full and made for laughingâ¦or kissing. She was pretty enough, he thought, surprised that someone so
could bring all the men to their knees.
“Mrs. Harbaugh? I'm Zeke Titan.” He tipped his hat.
“Have you come to shoot me, Mr. Titan?”
She pointed at the Winchester he still cradled in his arm. “I don't allow guns on school property. Or weapons of any kind.”
“What harm can a young boy do with a knife?”
“Plenty of harm, sir. If your reputation is anything to go by, you are well aware of the danger knives and guns can present.”
“My reputation?” Excellent. “So you've heard of me.”
“One can hardly live in Titanville and not hear of you and your reputation for wildness.” She frowned slightly. “I'll admit I'd pictured someone older, however.” Her gaze dropped to his flat midsection. “Someone of more girth, perhaps.”
He gave her a lazy smile. “Disappointed?”
Her green eyes narrowed. “Disappointment would imply your presence is of any consequence to me. I assure you, it is not.”
“Are you this prickly with all your visitors?”
“You are confusing my unwillingness to waste time with my temperament, Mr. Titan. You are the one who walked to the schoolhouse. For what purpose?”
“Why, to meet you, Mrs. Harbaugh.”
She frowned slightly, as if confused by the admission. “And now you have. I still have students here and they require my full attention.”
“Then I will leave you to them.” He tipped his hat again. “Until this evening.”
“What happens this evening?”
“We will dine together, Mrs. Harbaugh. You're staying at the hotel, are you not?”
He already knew the answer to that question. Teachers stayed at the hotel for a year. If they made it to their second yearâand so far no teacher hadâa house would be built for them. Zeke covered the cost of the room, easy enough, as he owned the hotel. Meals were taken in the small dining room in back.
“I'm staying there,” she began, “not that it is any business of yours.”
“It's my business now,” he said softly. “I will see you at six.”
“I will not be dining with you. It wouldn't be proper.”
“A public place, surrounded by other people in a well-respected establishment? What could be more proper? It will give you the chance to save my soul, Mrs. Harbaugh. What goal could be more worthy?”
Annoyance flared in her beautiful green eyes. “I'm not interested in your soul.”
“But that is the only part of me you may haveâ¦for now.”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Color stained her cheeks. Zeke held in a chuckle, then headed back to town. He knew everything he needed about Alethea Harbaugh. She would be more of a challenge than his other conquests, a circumstance he welcomed. But the outcome was already setâhe would have her in his bed. And once he did, he would win. Having surrendered, she would leave, rather than face the good women of town. Being a widow, she would go quietly.
He would set her up with a house somewhere, he told himself. She could be a teacher back east, where her formal ways and love of Shakespeare would be appreciated. But until that day, he planned to enjoy every moment of his seduction. Starting with dinner that night.