Sandra Chastain

September 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-334-4

She'll do anything to save her small band of actors from the brilliant rogue who won her troupe in a poker match--even pretend to be the woman he loves.

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A handsome gambler. A plain-Jane masquerading as her sexy twin sister. Can she win back her quirky troupe of actors? Seduction is a game she'll have to learn . . .

For Portia Macintosh and her beloved company of Shakespearean performers, the summer was supposed to be a restful vacation spent staging the Bard's plays at Georgia's grand old Sweetwater Hotel. The resort is where well-to-do families come to enjoy the hotel's famous springs.

Then her rascally father lost the troupe to businessman-gambler Daniel Logan.

Now it's up to tomboy Portia to masquerade as the kind of femme fatale Logan wants—by impersonating her irresistible twin sister, Fiona. The stage is set for a grand deception . . . if only Logan doesn't turn the tables on her.

Sandra Chastain is the author of more than fifty romance novels spanning contemporary series, women's fiction, and historicals. Her much-praised books are only one part of her writing legacy; as a founder of Georgia Romance Writers, one of the largest state chapters of Romance Writers of America, she has mentored thousands of fellow authors.


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PORTIA MACINTOSH surveyed the empty railcar and swore. "Fiona! Wake up! Where's Papa?"

Fiona sat up slowly, wiped the sleep from her china-blue eyes and glared at her twin sister. "How should I know? He said he was just going to step outside for a smoke while the train stopped."

"Oh blast! Hell fire and little fishes! Why does he do this? I knew I shouldn't have gone back to the troupe car and left him here alone. You should have gone after him."

"Me? Go outside, alone, and look for Papa?"

The train, creaking and lumbering along like a crotchety old man, began to pick up speed. Portia caught the back of one of the high-backed red serge seats for support. "For goodness sake, Fiona. This is 1890. The last stop was the Atlanta Terminal Station. There were people everywhere."

"Well I don't know anything about Atlanta, Georgia," Fiona said crossly. "And I certainly don't know why we're going to some church training school to perform. We're Shakespearean actors, not school children!"

Portia buttoned the man's jacket she was wearing, tucked her strawberry blonde hair beneath the gentlemen's driving cap she habitually wore, and glanced down. Brown corduroy trousers hugged her slim boyish hips and legs, ending in scuffed knee-high leather boots.

"It isn't a Sunday School, Fiona. Papa says The Sweetwater Hotel is some kind of fine resort like Saratoga Springs. People go there to take the mineral baths and drink the water."

"But, we aren't going to the hotel, are we?" Fiona drew herself into a little ball and covered her legs with a blanket. "Oh, Portia, I'm tired of living like a gypsy. I want a real house and a husband."

"I know, Fee, I know." Portia's patience was growing thin. She knew they were all hungry and tired. Still she tried to reassure her sister. "The Chautauqua is the place where we perform. It's a kind of school for adults. They teach language and art, and . . ." Portia moved to the front of the car, opened the door and peered out. ". . . Oh, I don't know, Fee. We'll see when we get there. I've got to go look for Papa."

"What makes you think Papa is still on the train?"

"You know Papa isn't going to get left behind. He's probably found one of those dining cars and some wealthy matron to listen to his tall tales. I'll find him."

"You aren't going to look for him dressed like that, are you?" Fiona's voice registered her distress.

"Don't I always travel like this? Oh, Fee, nobody would listen to me if I didn't dress like a man. You know I have to look after Papa and the rest of the troupe. With Papa slipping away to have a spot of something or other every time I turn my back and you afraid to get off the train in the dark, who else is going to do it? Can't you see me unloading scenery in a velvet gown? Or maybe I'll throw out a heckler while I'm cinched up in a corset and carrying a parasol. No thanks. Only a man has real power."

Portia glanced at her sister in irritation then changed her expression into a more gentle rebuke. Not only did Fiona have to tolerate a lifestyle she abhorred, but she was constantly reminded of her sad plight by watching her mirror image attired in men's clothing and acting like some tough-talking Molly. Poor Fee. Being a twin was harder on her.

"Portia, don't you ever want to fall in love? Get married? Have a family?"

"Me? Of course not; that's the last thing I would ever want to do—give any man control over my life. I like things just the way they are. Besides, I have you and Papa."

"But how will I ever find a proper husband, a real gentleman with you sounding and looking like some tinker's son, and Papa . . ."

Sweet Fiona. She wasn't born to live in such a family. She deserved a fine young gentleman who'd treasure her quiet beauty and gentle nature. Indeed, neither of them deserved a father who was a ne'er-do-well, impoverished fake, but that's what they had. Horatio Macintosh was a charming rogue, who left the running of the acting troupe to Portia, knowing that by hook or crook she'd figure how to solve their problems.

Marry? Not she. She'd never understood Fiona's desire to belong to anybody. Portia had her family and the troupe. They depended on her, and they were all she'd ever need. She'd seen enough of marriage to know what happened to women who blindly gave themselves over to their husbands. They ceased to exist, becoming instead an appendage to the man.

Mama used to shake her head and say that it was too bad that Portia didn't have some of Fiona's sweet gentleness, while Fiona could have used a little of Portia's backbone. But there were two of them and somehow everything got parceled out so that even though they looked alike, they were very different. If there were times late at night when Portia allowed herself to fantasize a bit about settling down in one place, the light of day always brought her back to reality.

Other than Papa's little lapses, Portia liked life just the way it was. Except that now Papa had disappeared.

Portia knew that after her father's last disastrous night on the town before they left Philadelphia, their survival was more likely to depend on crook rather than hook. What money they had left would just cover housing and food for the troupe. Horatio, that lovable rake who wasn't above picking a pocket or two along the way if need be. Secretly Portia hoped that for once he'd be successful and find a pocket filled with money. She was hungry, too.

Opening the door at the end of the rail car, Portia stood on the swaying platform where one car was fastened to the next by a bolted tongue. She could see straight ahead into the car beyond. The train, now running at full speed, was bumping and jerking along as if some giant child were pulling it on a string.

Taking the time to get her balance, Portia leapt across the space between. She opened the door to the adjacent car, brightly lit and packed with lavishly dressed guests chatting gaily. She threaded her way down the aisle between the seats of the elegant car searching for Horatio.

"Boy! What are you doing in here?" the black-suited conductor at the end of the aisle questioned sharply, eyeing her with disapproval. "This isn't your car."

"You're right, sir," Portia agreed, lifting her cap, allowing the mass of rosy golden curls to cascade down her back. This was one of the few times when being a woman could be an advantage. "I seem to have lost my father, and I was wondering if you'd seen him." She put a soft wheedle in her voice and approached him. After all, she was an actress, a very good one.

"Just who is your father?" The conductor backed uneasily away from Portia down the corridor until his back was against the glass in the door behind him.

"My father is Captain Horatio Macintosh, the Shakespearean actor. Surely you must have seen him."

"No. I don't think so, not since you boarded the train. The only cars left are the private cars of Mr. Simon Fordham, next in line, and that of Mr. Daniel Logan beyond, and you may not enter them." The conductor leaned against the door as though he thought she might fling him aside and rip it from its hinges.

Portia studied the toady little man. He didn't have to answer her. She could see past him into the window of the door of the private car beyond. The overhead light cast a golden halo on the men around the table, gambling, she judged, from the look of the cards and stack of money in the center of the light.

At that moment a plump, gold-ringed hand threw out a card, and Portia's heart sank. Stage jewelry. She'd found her father. Horatio was in a poker game with wealthy men who were wearing real gold jewelry with real precious stones. Her father's hand was trembling, and she could tell that he was worried. She also knew there was no way in the world she'd be able to get into that car and get him away. She'd wait, right where she was.

"Now, boy—er—I mean, miss, I insist that you return to your own car." The conductor glanced anxiously behind her. She didn't have to see the frowns on the faces of the passengers to know that they were there. The displeasure was evident in the man's expression as he gathered his wits and stiffened his back.

"Yes sir. Oh! I don't feel well." Portia gave a dramatically wrenching cry of pain and clasped her forehead. "I'm afraid I'm going to faint. It must be this constant motion . . . train sickness . . ." She began to sway.

"Oh—Oh my goodness. Don't faint—not in here." The conductor caught her arm and supported her as she collapsed into an empty seat facing the exit.

"Thank you," she managed, her performance calculated to elicit great compassion from the railroad employee. Her results were sufficiently rewarded as evidenced by the worried look on his face. Perfect. She could see out the door into the next car. "I'll just sit here for a moment until my head stops swimming. How long until the next station?"

The conductor pulled a silver watch from his pocket and strained to read it in the wavering light. "Less than twenty minutes. Austell Station will be the end of the line. Can you possibly wait until we get there before you faint?"

Portia bit back a smile. She could probably wait forever. She'd never fainted in her life—except on stage. "I think so," she whispered, leaning her head on the back of the seat. "If you'll just let me sit quietly, I'll be all right. Go on with what you have to do."

"Fine! Fine!" The little man scurried away, eager to separate himself from a potential problem.

Portia studied the door into the next car. Five sets of hands held playing cards around the table. She could get a clear picture of only one person: a thin-faced man who sat directly opposite the door, nervously smoking a cigar. His finger was girded with a large diamond ring, and his chest was blazing with a satin brocade vest. She watched him reach for his pocket watch, halt his motion in mid-air as if he changed his mind, and let his hand drop back to the table. Probably he was either Simon Fordham or Daniel Logan, one of the two men the conductor had identified.

Any thought of stopping her father died as she realized that there was a lock on the private car, a very large lock. There was to be no association between the men inside and the common passengers, no matter how elegant these people were. Portia fidgeted. She'd have to wait, and waiting could be a disaster.

Horatio Macintosh had the good sense to throw in his next two hands. After several long pauses while glasses were refilled, she saw her father pick up his cards again.

"Please, Papa," she whispered. But this time he didn't fold. Portia glanced outside the window and judged that the train was slowing. She couldn't be certain, but the twenty minutes must be almost gone. If only she could reach her father before he did something foolish.

Portia would never have admitted it to Fee, but she was more than a little worried. A nervous tic feathered her left eye as she counted off the seconds with every breath. She should have kept a closer watch on Horatio. He'd been too enthusiastic in describing their next engagement, and she more than anyone else knew that meant that he was hiding something.

From the time they'd left upper New York state, Portia had stopped fooling herself about Papa's latest scheme. The planned week's stay in Albany had ended abruptly after three nights, bringing in just enough money to get them to Philadelphia. There had been a mix-up in dates there and they'd had to wait over for a week before the theater was free. The hold-over had eaten into their earnings, leaving them just enough money to buy passage south. Appearing at a summer resort outside of Atlanta was a new booking for them, and she was worried.

Perspiration beaded up on Portia's forehead as she sat watching. The card players added money to the middle of the green felt table at an alarming rate. The man with the diamond pulled off his ring and tossed it on the pot.

The train was slowing down.

The second man with the long fingers and carefully manicured nails was wearing only one piece of jewelry, a heavy silver ring. His movements were smooth with a graceful rhythm. He discarded one card and accepted another, studied them for a long time, snapped them into a stack and fanned them slowly open again before he finally added a large number of bills to the table and waited.

The next two men threw their cards down, leaving only her father's less steady hands. Those hands wavered and then vanished from sight. There was a long still moment when nobody moved. Portia couldn't tell what her father was doing until he laid a sheet of paper on the pot.

Oh God, Papa, don't give him a marker. If you've lost our money, how will we pay it?

She saw him lay down his hand with a flourish, but she couldn't tell what he was holding. The other man spread his cards, one at a time, and for a long moment nobody moved. At last the graceful, sinewy fingers wearing the heavy silver ring began to gather all the money and pull it toward his side of the table. Portia's heart thudded to the bottom of her boot. Papa didn't have to tell her; she knew he'd lost.

At that point the train shuddered to a stop.

The conductor spoke in a bored sing-song voice. "Ladies and gentlemen, we've arrived at Austell Station. Those of you going on to the resorts nearer the springs may take the miniature system called the Dummy Line, which will be arriving shortly to transport you. In the meantime you may remain on board or step outside to stretch your legs."

Portia ran her tongue along her upper lip nervously. Oh, Papa, how could you let yourself get into a game with those men? A little game with the stagehands is one thing, but you couldn't hope to keep up with millionaires.

Portia glanced around. The conductor was at the other end of the car. As the train came to a full stop she opened the back door and leapt forward to the next car. She tried the lock. It wouldn't open. Inside the men were watching her father exit the back door. Desperately she jumped off the train and sprinted down the graveled roadbed to the other end of the car, just as her father was coming unsteadily down the steps.


"Portia." His voice was strained. He caught at his stomach and groaned. She couldn't tell whether or not he was actually in distress. Horatio was the finest actor in the troupe, and this wouldn't be the first time he'd diverted attention from his misdeeds.

"Papa, how could you?" Portia took his arm and felt him lean on her. His color wasn't good, and his breathing was irregular. If he was faking, he was doing a good job of it.

"Portia, I've done it this time. I've lost it, lost it all. What will happen to my darling daughters? Oh! Oh! This is the end."

"Nonsense, Papa, whatever you've done, this isn't the end." They were walking through the darkness beside the train, Portia forced to support his weight more than she'd expected. "What do you mean all? You couldn't have lost much money. We don't have much money."

"Not the money, darlin'. I've lost it all—the show—the troupe." He sagged.

"The Macintosh Shakespearean Theatrical Group? You've lost our company?" Portia had expected anything but that. She was stunned. For most of her twenty-two years she'd devoted herself to looking after her father and the troupe, and now he'd lost it in a card game? She stood there, white-faced and speechless, the breath sucked out of her with the acceptance of his words. Papa had bet their livelihood?

"I had three kings, Portia. And there was all that money there. The idiot in the brocade vest I could have handled, but the other one, he wouldn't fold. Tough as steel he is, rich, some silver miner from Nevada. You should have seen the ring on his finger, made from one solid chunk of silver. There was already a diamond ring on the table, and I thought he'd throw his in the pot and we'd be set for life."

"Who, Papa? Who won the company?"

"Logan, Daniel Logan owns us all."

Portia helped her father into the railcar where an alarmed Fiona was waiting. Portia prided herself on her control. This couldn't be happening. There had to be an answer. She could handle it. But how? She couldn't formulate her thoughts any further.

"What's wrong, Portia? What's wrong with Papa?"

"He's just gambled away the company, Fee. Stay here and look after him until I get back."

"Where are you going now?"

"I'm going to find the low-down swine who took advantage of a foolish old man—our new employer, Mr. Daniel Logan."

Captain Horatio Macintosh breathed deeply and leaned his head back on the seat. "Be careful, child. He's a very powerful man."

"What are you going to do?" Fiona asked breathlessly.

"Simple," Portia answered desperately. "I'm going to do whatever I have to, just as I've always done."




"DRAT!" THIS HAD to be Daniel Logan's car, and it was dark. Either he wasn't in his own car, or he was already asleep. What would happen to the private cars when the train pulled out heading back to Atlanta? Would they be moved out to the resort, or would they remain here until the owners elected to return to wherever they'd come from?

Portia looked around, considering her next move. She had to find Mr. Daniel Logan and get back to the troupe quickly. Rowdy, the actor who also served as head grip, would see that the troupe unloaded the sets and costumes, but they'd wait for her to get them to the Chautauqua College, wherever that was.

Across the tracks, Portia could see a row of gas lights illuminating several small hotels and boarding establishments. Passengers were beginning to cross the tracks, and she could hear the unloading of the luggage down the track behind her. It was late. She had to do something quickly. The chances were that Mr. Logan and Mr. Fordham were still in Mr. Fordham's car celebrating their victory over a foolish old man. Portia mounted the steps and tried the door to Daniel Logan's car. Locked.

She heard footsteps.

A railroad employee walked down the roadbed adjacent to the train, shining a lantern here and there as if he were making rounds. Portia hugged the doorway and held her breath until he moved away again. She couldn't stay out here waiting. Quickly she scurried to the ground, knelt down and felt in the darkness until she found a good sized rock. Wrapping the rock in her cap she swung it hard against the glass in the door, shattering it. The sound made a loud crash in the night.

Portia took out the rock, shook her cap, replaced it and held her breath. Was Daniel Logan inside? No. Had anyone heard? Apparently not.

After a long heart-thumping moment she reached through the jagged opening and turned the knob. The door opened silently and she slipped inside hearing the crunch of glass beneath her boot. She'd find a place to hide. When he came in the door she'd use her rock to . . . to . . .

"All right. That's far enough."

From the inner darkness two arms slid around her in a quick motion that squeezed the air from her chest. The blackness seemed suddenly pinpointed with little sparkles of light and she began to feel fuzzy-headed as she tried to breathe. Her back was jerked up against a very masculine chest encased in rich velvet and smelling faintly of cigar smoke and expensive brandy.

Desperately she yelled and let loose a stream of curses she'd only heard used by the stage hands along their travels, momentarily startling her captor. "Let me go," she growled, thrashing violently under his iron-clad grip.

Portia would have screamed a second time, but one hand twisted her arm up painfully behind her and the other hand clamped her mouth forcing her to drop the rock and swallow the words she'd been about to shout.

Portia knew that he was stronger. She only had one chance. Pretending to weaken, she moaned and went limp in his arms. The man relaxed his grip.

"That's better," he said.

Seizing the opportunity, Portia whirled around and punched her captor's face as hard as she could.

"Awwk! You little thief. You hit me!" Her assailant lunged, taking a new hold, dragging his arm across her upper body in a grip of death. "I wasn't trying to hurt you before. I may pinch your scrawny head off now."

At that moment, Portia leaned down and bit the hand now holding her left breast.

Whether it was due to the shock of his hand touching a breast or the pain of being bitten, the man swore an oath, and slung her across the car where she tumbled in a heap on a great velvet-covered bed.

"If you're a thief, you're out of luck, darling. If you're a railroad dolly looking for a friend, I'm not interested."

He lit the lamp on the small table by the window and turned back to face Portia.

"You black-hearted, card-cheating wretch! You nearly strangled me."

"Well, between breaking my nose and biting my hand, I'd say you did a pretty fair job of protecting yourself. Who are you?"

Portia gasped. She'd bloodied his nose. Beneath the wine colored velvet dressing gown his white linen shirt was spattered with bright red drops. He had to be Daniel Logan, this devil with great black eyes, a dapper mustache, and thick dark hair that fell rakishly forward across his face. Mr. Logan was very angry.

"You're bleeding." She raised her chin stubbornly. "Well, dash it all, it's your own fault. If you hadn't tried to strangle me . . ."

Daniel glared at her. Definitely a girl, he thought, wearing a man's coat and trousers. With her hair tucked up beneath a man's driving cap, her lips drawn into a daring frown of defiance, and that tough, husky voice, she could easily be mistaken for a boy.

At first glance she might look and sound like a slim young lad, but Daniel knew better. He'd felt those firm breasts and there was nothing wrong with his body's response to the touch of her against him.

In the struggle her cap had loosened allowing a strand of light colored hair to escape and hang down behind her ear. Cheeks flushed, chest heaving and blue eyes flashing, the girl on his bed was just about the most enchanting creature he'd seen in a very long time. She was like a tawny barnyard kitten, cornered and spitting fire. He had no doubt that, given the chance, she'd spring up, attack him and be out of his car before he knew what had happened.

"Who are you?" he asked, pulling a fine linen handkerchief from a chest behind him and applying it gingerly to his nose and then to his bloody hand.

Portia's eyes were drawn to the silver ring she'd first seen through the railcar window. This was the man who'd won the final hand in the card game. If she hadn't been certain before, she was now. "My name, sir, is Macintosh and I've come to discuss a matter of business with you. You met my father earlier this evening?"

"That wily old crook at the card table was your father?" It figured. He'd known that Horatio Macintosh was in over his head from the moment he bluffed his way into the car and the game. "Well, it's his own fault. I tried to talk him into dropping out, even managed to . . ." Daniel swallowed his admission that for a time, he'd even dealt him enough good cards to keep him from losing everything.

"Crook? Papa never loses," Portia lied valiantly, in what she hoped was a convincing show of indignation. "You took advantage of an old man. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Daniel glanced down at his hand, conscious of the painful set of teeth prints in the space between his thumb and forefinger. Damn the little witch.

He'd been able to protect Macintosh for a while. Daniel never cheated for himself. He didn't have to. One thing he had learned during his years in the gold field saloons and gambling halls was how to do it when the occasion arose. That skill, along with the kind of mind that recorded and remembered everything he saw, made Daniel Logan a formidable gambler, though he rarely consciously used his eidetic memory. He'd learned long ago that it was better to conceal that peculiar talent.

But Macintosh wouldn't listen, and once the deal changed hands, Daniel couldn't cover for the old man. When Macintosh had lost everything else, Daniel had no choice but to out-bluff all the other players until only the two of them were left. He'd known that the old man couldn't raise his bid, and he'd forced the Captain into losing only to protect him.

The last thing he wanted was to own a traveling show. He'd spent the past three years convincing the world that he was respectable, and there was nothing respectable about an acting company, even if they were performing the plays of Mr. Shakespeare. The Captain had failed to mention that along with the troupe, Daniel would have a wild woman-child to deal with—as if he wasn't already frustrated by his lack of progress on his assignment at the Sweetwater.

God knows, he thought rubbing his throbbing hand, the last thing he needed tonight was to respond to this girl. He stared at the feisty, vagabond-looking creature shooting invisible spears of fire from across the room. But he was responding, and he knew that this mental encounter was as physical as the rout they'd both experienced a few moments ago. He just wasn't sure that she knew it yet.

Daniel Logan reached behind him and locked the door. He turned toward the woman sprawled across his bed. "I never cheat for myself, only when I am trying to protect someone who needs . . . never mind," he said in a soft quiet voice. "I think, my dear, that we'd better do some serious negotiating."

"Fine," Portia agreed bravely. "I've done this kind of thing before."

Daniel glared at her in astonishment. "Well, you certainly pick an odd way of dressing for it."

"Oh, no . . . you don't understand," she stammered, confused by the directness of his gaze. His expression changed from surprise to a kind of suppressed laughter, though there was still a seriousness there that said clearly that he was misunderstanding her attempt to negotiate. She blushed.

"Hell fire and little fishes!" Portia shook her head and jutted her chin. "What I'm trying to say is that I'm ready to work out an acceptable payment plan to take care of my father's debt. I'm sure we can come to some agreement."

"Maybe," Daniel said, knowing that there was no way she could come up with the amount of money her father had bet. "If I don't bleed to death first. At the moment I think your first move ought to be seeing to the wounds you inflicted on me."

He sat down in a chair by the window and leaned his head back against the crushed velvet cushion. He needed to put some time and space between them, to give himself a moment to consider his next move. Damn! He frowned. The little hellcat had socked him in the nose, but now his whole head ached.

Portia, on the bed, saw his grimace, and flinched. He was so big and strong. She was alone in a half dark railcar with this man, completely at his mercy. That foppish velvet dressing gown hadn't concealed the rock hard body beneath it. She'd come here to find a way to shame him into returning the troupe, yet all she'd done was attack him. Caring and nursing had always been Fiona's department. Portia didn't even know how. But it looked as if she was going to have to try.

On the table near the bed she saw a basin and pitcher. On the shelf above lay his straight razor and shaving mug, his shaving strop, towels and washcloths. Water. The pitcher would contain water, and she'd clean his face.

Quickly she came to her feet and crossed the room. The sooner she repaired the damage she'd caused, the sooner she'd get back to the business of reclaiming her troupe.

Pouring water into the bowl, she lifted the razor, wishing there was a way she could slide it into her coat, then sighed, laid it aside and wet the cloth.

"You're not planning to use my razor on me now, are you?"

She turned her gaze back to the man whose eyes were open now, eyeing her warily. "I think you ought to know that I would, if I thought I had to."

"I don't doubt it for a moment. I think that old reprobate is lucky to have a defender like you. Do you always take charge?"

"The troupe depends on me, yes. One way or another, I manage to handle things."

"Yes, and if my nose is an example of your methods I'm not sure that I trust you. Be gentle with me." His voice was a suggestive whisper, filled with mischief, and she realized that he was enjoying her discomfort.

She covered her agitation by violently wringing out the cloth.

"I won't say I'm not still tempted to strangle you, but I'll try not to hurt you, at least not yet." Putting aside the urge she had to look away, she held the cloth out before her like a cross before a condemned prisoner.

"That sounds like a threat."

"I never make threats."

The cold cloth made Daniel flinch as she began to wipe the dried blood from his upper lip. She used quick, rough little motions, like a cat cleaning herself. There was something erotic about the touch of her small callused hands on his face as she worked.

"You have very rough hands for a woman." He caught her hand for a moment and held it open against his cheek and neck. He hadn't met anyone like her since he'd left Virginia City. "Why do you dress like a man? A woman ought to be soft and sweet natured."

Portia swore between clenched teeth. There was no mistaking the rapid beat of his pulse beneath her fingertips. "Because it's necessary. People don't respect soft, sweet women very much. Being soft only allows them to take advantage of you. I've found this is better."

Portia's voice cracked. She'd never touched a man so intimately before. "Please don't misunderstand," she stammered as she wiped. "No matter what you may think, I'm not very experienced at—this sort of thing. I don't think you'd find me at all interesting."

"You're wrong. I find you very interesting." Truthfully, Daniel didn't know what in Hades he was doing. The girl was proud. She'd come there to bargain for her father's company. He knew that this wasn't the first time she'd pulled her father out of some scrape or other. And knowing the temptations ahead at Sweetwater for a gambling man with high hopes, it probably wouldn't be the last time.

But there was something in the girl's face that reached out to him, something proud and indomitable. She might have been his mother, or his sister, or some part of himself from the past.

The one motivating factor of Daniel Logan's life was his ongoing attempt to make up for a past he couldn't change. Oh yes, he understood what she was doing and he couldn't turn his back on her own brave attempt to make things right. The desperate look in her eyes was a reflection of his own all those years ago in Nevada. He couldn't change anything then, but over and over, for the rest of his life, he allowed himself to be taken by any honest plea for help.

Daniel closed his eyes wearily. He could almost hear Ian Gaunt, his best friend and business associate, berate him when he got to the resort and tried to explain how he'd tried to save a flim-flam man who got in over his head, and ended up with a bloody nose delivered by the thief's tough-talking daughter.

Why take in a raggedy down-on-their luck group of actors? Ian would ask at the same time he was offering his own assistance. Strangers considered Ian cold and a bit aloof. He wasn't. Only Daniel understood Ian's fierce loyalty and quiet strength. For almost fifteen years they'd been together and Ian knew him very well. Still, even to Ian Daniel, he might have a hard time trying to explain taking on this little spitfire.

What he ought to do was throw this girl and her father's acting troupe out and get to bed. Tomorrow he'd return to the Sweetwater, ready to set a trap for a jewel thief. Daniel's first two weeks at the resort had been an exercise in frustration. The thief he was after either wasn't there yet or he was smart—too smart.

Originally, Daniel planned to establish his presence at the resort by hinting that he'd come to select a wife. That way he could circulate and ask questions, questions that the guests would be more than willing to answer. The patrons of Sweetwater quickly learned that he was wealthy and eligible. Soon he was unable to move freely about the resort without being besieged by mothers and fathers with marriageable daughters, unable to ask the questions he needed to ask. Finally Ian suggested that Daniel pretend to take a business trip to give himself breathing room.

Now this girl had come along. And in spite of his duty to the assignment he'd accepted, she made him remember himself when he was a determined young lad, left alone on a worked-out mining claim. The acting troupe was no mining claim, but Daniel knew that he couldn't turn his back on them.

There'd been someone who helped him, once, someone who hadn't turned her back on him when he was in need. If Belle hadn't come along and taken him in, he might have . . .

Well, he'd been lucky. Someone had come along to shield and protect him, and now he was in a position to do the same thing for someone else. But the girl wouldn't understand. She'd been in charge too long to accept his protection. She was too proud.

"Tell me about the troupe." Daniel realized he was still holding her hand and released it with reluctance.

"We perform Shakespearean plays," she said, releasing a pent up breath of relief at his letting go. "We have our own sets and costumes. There are twelve of us in all. We've played New York, Boston, New Orleans, all over." Her voice was too quick and breathless and she took a long minute to calm herself as she rinsed the cloth and wiped his chin and down his neck toward his chest where the blood had dripped.

"And your father? Does he often gamble it away?"

"No. This is the first time he's ever . . ."

Her voice trailed off, and Daniel felt her despair.

"I came here to bargain with you, Mr. Logan. We have no more money, but once we get to the Sweetwater, we intend to perform at the Piedmont Chautauqua College. As the owner, you will have all our income, other than the expense of keeping the troupe. But I . . . I'll find other means to earn extra income to pay off Papa's debt. How much does he owe you?"

That look came into her eyes again, that desperate look of determination. It was obvious that her father hadn't told her the amount of his wager. Neither could he. "Five thousand dollars," he lied convincingly.

When Daniel named the figure, Portia's face blanched. Damn, he should have made the figure lower. She would have had no idea how much money was involved when her father recklessly used his company as security to cover the pot. Daniel wanted to thrash Captain Macintosh for his careless action. Five thousand dollars might not be a large sum of money to him, but to the girl, the figure announced the end of her world. Hell, he didn't need all this.

Daniel felt her anguish as she swallowed hard and returned to her task of wiping away the blood. How could she hope to earn extra money? It would take her years to pay off her father's debt.

Twelve players . . . Daniel thought back to Macintosh's exaggerated claim of a one-hundred-member traveling company. Five thousand dollars might even be a generous evaluation for the group! He watched as the girl rinsed the cloth in the water and hung it on the towel rack. Now she was standing quietly, poised like some frightened bird, ready to fly away if he moved.

"Listen, little one," he said kindly, "I don't want your show. But I know a bit about men like your father. It might not be safe to return your troupe to him just yet. For your own good I think I'll hold on to it until the end of the season. Then I'll consider giving it back to you."

"You will? Oh, thank you." The relief on her face was short-lived. "But why?" She eyed him warily. What did he expect in return? The men she'd been forced to deal with in recent years always had an ulterior motive. Generosity was a quality she'd not found, outside of her own family! Genuinely bewildered, Portia folded one arm across her body and clenched her arm.

"What exactly do you expect in return?" she questioned warily.

"I don't expect anything. I'm in a position to help you and I will." He could tell from the proud expression on her face that taking his help freely would be hard, if not impossible. He didn't want to force her compliance. There'd been a time when he'd seen his own mother resort to doing whatever was necessary to protect him and his sister, and that kind of sacrifice had ultimately killed her.

"Unless . . . Wait a minute." Daniel came to his feet and began to pace. He was beginning to see a way out that would save face for both of them. "I may have an answer. For the last two weeks I've been chased by every single woman in the state of Georgia. I don't have a minute's peace at the resort because of the interference of their mothers."

"Some men wouldn't consider that a problem."

"Maybe, but I'm trying to—well I have important business there and these foolish women are throwing their unmarried daughters at me in full force."

"Why would they do that?" Portia asked, glancing at him warily. After all, he was the kind of man that women would naturally gravitate toward. Even she recognized the pure animal attraction the man exuded.

"Because I made the mistake of telling them that I was looking for a wife. I thought I would be better off to conceal the real reasons why I came, financial reasons, that is, so I said I was wife-hunting. I'm not, but if I were, I wouldn't pick one of those empty-headed little wenches who never had an original idea or a thought about being a real woman."

"Just like a man. Shopping for a wife the way a woman would buy a roast of beef," she said acidly. "But, what does that have to do with me?"

"I think I have a way that you could earn the full release of your father's troupe, if you're willing."

"Anything," she promised eagerly. "I mean, almost anything." Portia might put conditions on her involvement with Daniel Logan, but she knew that she had no choice but to agree, whatever the stipulations. She'd even . . . well she wasn't quite sure what he was asking, but she knew that she would do it. The rest of the crew, her father, and Fiona depended on her.

Making deals and working out problems was nothing new. The Captain had always relied on her business sense and natural diplomacy. Gradually she'd taken on more and more of the everyday operation of the group.

Horatio's talent lay in his charm and quick wit. For years he'd been able to convince the local boarding house proprietors to house and feed his troupe. Theater managers miraculously agreed to promote their appearances and somehow they'd managed to survive—until now.

Portia and Fiona's lives might have been different if their mother hadn't died giving birth to their younger brother, a tiny little thing who never took a first breath. So long as Kathryn Macintosh had lived, Horatio had held himself in restraint. Afterward, year by year, Portia had seen their bookings fall, their costumes lose their beauty and their numbers dwindle. In the last year Horatio had lost their private railcar and now, he'd lost the troupe. Tonight might be the biggest test she'd ever face.

Portia shook off a sense of impending doom, gathering the inner strength that had carried her through all the dark times in her life and tried to formulate a rebuttal. But this time nothing came. There were no more answers. Perhaps the finale had come with this black-eyed stranger who seemed intent on bringing to an end the life she'd promised her mother she'd protect.

Daniel, sensing her resignation, made a gesture of appeasement. "This proposition is a purely honorable arrangement, my dear. It's the only answer I have, and it might just save us both. I'd like you to pretend to be my fiancée."

"Me? Be your fiancée?" Whatever she'd been expecting—that wasn't it. "Listen, Mr. Logan. I don't think you know what you're asking. You can't possibly be serious—I know nothing about how to act at a fancy hotel. I'd only embarrass you."

"Possibly, but I've been embarrassed before. Besides, what you don't know, I'll teach you."

"You'll teach me how to be a lady? Hell fire and little fishes, Logan. You don't have enough years left to accomplish that. "

"Well, maybe. But I'll give it my best shot." Daniel swallowed hard, trying to picture this little hellcat trying to be prim and proper. "You won't have to do much. Just make a few appearances at dinner so that the other hotel guests are convinced that you exist, and then you can go on about your business of acting."

"Won't they wonder where I'm staying?"

"They'll be told that you're staying at one of the other hotels."

"Suppose they attend one of our plays and recognize me?" He gave Portia a long look. "I doubt they'll recognize you when I'm finished."

Portia took a deep breath. She had a glimmering of understanding that the man she was facing was much more complex than he appeared. He hadn't actually compromised her. And he was right. She didn't have any choice.

Drawing herself up to her full height and jutting her chin forward, Portia bargained warily. "If I supply you with a fiancée long enough for those women to call off their attack, you'll give back our troupe?"

"Yes. You have my word."

Dare she trust him? In spite of the fact that she didn't want to, there was something about him that made her believe in his honesty. She stared openly at her enemy, captured by the intensity of his brown eyes.

The rakish fall of dark hair and his neatly trimmed mustache gave him a devil-may-care look that made her uncomfortable and she didn't know why. She was acutely aware of Daniel Logan as a man. The feeling was new and disturbing. How long had she been staring at him without answering his question?

"All I have to do is pretend to be your fiancée?" she finally stammered.

"That is correct."

"All right, Mr. Logan. Done. So long as the arrangement is only a business deal and temporary. If that is acceptable to you, I have no choice but to agree."

"Fine. That's settled. There's just one thing."

"Yes, what now?"

"What's your name?"

"I'm . . ." Portia choked. She couldn't say her name. That somehow committed her, committed Portia Macintosh to do something that made her lose control of her own fate, something she'd sworn she'd never do. Then the answer came to her, an answer that made her suddenly giddy with inspiration and secret glee.

There was no practical way that she could be Daniel Logan's fiancée. Not only would she do something awful, but some sixth sense told her that the less she saw of the man the better off she'd be. He unsettled her and she didn't know why.

Fiona always played the demure, ingénue roles. Her manners were the reflection of every great stage lady she'd ever portrayed. Soft, gentle Fiona would be perfect as Daniel Logan's fiancée, and for once she'd be forced to grow up and do her part in pulling their father out of another of his predicaments. Fiona had always wanted to be a lady and find a real husband. This would be her chance.

Daniel Logan would never know the difference. Other than a slight variation in their hair color, and the fact that Portia's eyes were a bit bluer than Fiona's, they were physically identical. Besides, the railcar was too dark for him to see her clearly.

"My name . . ." Portia softened her voice and gave the stranger a staged, timid smile. "Your fiancée's name is—Fiona."

"Very well, Fiona," Daniel said seriously. "As far as the world is concerned, we are engaged. Take your troupe to one of the small hotels across the street from the depot and spend the night. I'll make arrangements for your move to the Chautauqua quarters and pay your bill in the morning."

Morning? Good heavens it was after midnight now. She'd been in Daniel Logan's railcar much too long. Portia lowered her head and moved quickly to the door. She stopped, turned, and held out her small hand, prepared to shake on their agreement. "Very well. Goodnight, Mr. Logan."

Daniel followed her lead, clasped her hand in his large one, and, lifting her chin with his finger, lowered his lips to drop a soft, sweet kiss on Portia's startled mouth.

Portia gasped and tilted her head back, staring at him in disbelief. He'd kissed her. His lips had been a gentle caress that warmed her face and drained the little remaining strength from her legs. She was trembling so much that she knew he felt her shake. This wasn't part of their bargain. Portia jerked her hand away and pushed against his chest, afraid he might kiss her again.

"You kissed me!"

"I did, didn't I?"

"But you shouldn't have." Portia's heart was pounding.

Daniel could see the pulse point in her neck quivering as she drew in a deep breath. "Why not? It's considered customary for two people who just got engaged." His own pulse wasn't behaving any more reasonably.

"But the engagement isn't real. It's only pretend, to make the world think that you are affianced. There is nobody here but the two of us."

Daniel groaned inwardly. He hadn't intended to kiss her. He looked at her for a long, silent moment, remembering how she'd drawn back and hit him in the nose. "You're right. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you."

"I wasn't frightened. I've been kissed before," she protested bravely, willing the stamina to restrain her trembling leg muscles. "I was only . . . surprised. But I don't think that you should do this again."

"I know." He stepped away, unlocked the door, and sliding his hand beneath her elbow, gently ushered her out into the night. "Goodnight, Fiona Macintosh. Sleep well, and tomorrow—buy yourself a proper dress."

Long after she'd gone, Daniel stood on the platform outside of his railcar, smoking. The Dummy Line train, with its narrow rails and miniature cars, arrived to ferry the passengers to their lodgings along the three miles of track connecting the resorts built around the famous mineral springs. Soon the depot was quiet.

Daniel wasn't sure why he'd bought himself a railcar. He'd arrived by carriage the first time. If he'd taken the carriage today he might never have joined Simon Fordham's poker game. He would never have gotten caught up in the agreement he'd just made. But then, he might never have met Fiona Macintosh either.

Owning and operating a traveling show was not something Daniel was a stranger to. From the mined-out gold fields of California to the silver mines of Nevada, he'd traveled with Belle's girls after she'd taken him in. Their performances had been on makeshift tent stages in the gold fields, in bars and saloons, and he learned about handling people and how to promote them. Later, when Belle had grown old and retired to run a boarding house in Denver, he'd expanded his business to include gambling, food and supplies.

At twenty-five he'd built his first hotel in Nevada. Now he owned an even finer hotel in New York City. Still, he couldn't resist the lure of wild, untamed land, secretly acquiring great sections of land in Alaska. It had taken him twenty years, but he'd become wealthy, very wealthy.

Daniel looked out over the line of darkened railcars and wondered why his mission to stop a jewel thief was so important. He couldn't explain his sense of being violated five years ago when he'd been outsmarted by thieves. They staged a fire and in the confusion stole the hotel safe containing the jewels that had been entrusted to his safekeeping by the guests in his own hotel. It wasn't just the lost jewels. He'd replaced them and repaired the hotel. But he'd been invaded in his own world and he couldn't let the thief go unpunished.

He'd hired the Pinkerton Brothers Agency and joined them in tracking down the culprits. Matching wits with the thieves had been so satisfying that Daniel had agreed to play detective for the Pinkerton firm whenever a situation came up that demanded a private detective who could blend with the rich and famous.

This time he'd been called in after thieves had used the same burn-and-steal method at the famous Saratoga Springs. The Pinkerton Brothers had a tip that the next target would be the Sweetwater. Daniel and Ian Gaunt had set out for the resort expecting to find the same thieves that had hit his own place. But so far there was no sign of that old gang.

The wife-hunting cover story was wearing thin and Daniel was no nearer finding the criminals than he'd been two weeks ago. The thieves were surely there, posing as guests, waiting, biding their time until the resort was filled with wealthy summer residents. But which of the guests was he after?

Daniel had watched them all circulate, met most of them over coffee and at the dinner table. So far he hadn't a clue. And he wasn't likely to find one until he announced that he'd selected the wife he was supposed to be seeking. This girl would solve the problem.

Miss Fiona Macintosh would provide breathing room, he told himself, then he'd release her from her promise and back away without recriminations. She was one woman who wouldn't take her assignment as a future bride seriously. That made her the perfect choice.

Daniel knew that he was doing a selling job on himself. The truth was that the last thing he needed right now was the distraction of a traveling acting troupe or a young woman with eyes that spoke to him of his past. But he couldn't turn his back on the girl. He might just as well get on over to the Sweetwater and check out their arrangements.

Life was ironic. He'd come full circle. Shakespearean actors might be different from Belle's dance hall girls and a tent saloon, but people were people and the paying customer was pretty much the same the world over. An acting troupe might even be fun. Daniel realized in pleasant surprise that for the first time in a long time, he felt an excitement about tomorrow.

Long after Portia had moved the tired crew members to the hotel and reported back to her shaken but recovering father that she'd worked out a deal for the return of the troupe, she stood at the window of her room considering the bargain.

The Captain hadn't asked her how she'd managed. He rarely did anymore. He was simply content to let her handle the problem. Fiona's participation in the return of the troupe might be a bit harder to rationalize. The hour was late. Time enough tomorrow to explain to Fiona that she would have to pretend to be Daniel Logan's fiancée.

But sleep wouldn't come to Portia. She couldn't find a way to erase Daniel Logan from her mind. He'd held her hand, gently as a real suitor might. Then, he'd done the unthinkable. He'd kissed her. He could have demanded much more from her. He could even have forced her to . . . her mind couldn't take that line of thought any further. She knew that her fate was in his hands. But for tonight, he'd let her go.

The next time she might not be able to get away. Except that it wouldn't be she, it would be Fiona that she'd delivered into the arms of that handsome rake. Suppose he found out the truth? Surely he wouldn't care which of the Macintosh sisters pretended to be his fiancée. But she suspected that he wouldn't take it lightly that she'd tricked him. Suppose he kissed Fiona?

Portia felt as if she were standing on some high cliff being buffeted by the wind. Little jolts of energy seemed to be bursting inside her body, like the bubbles she'd seen in the champagne being drunk during intermission in the great opera house where they'd once played.

She couldn't stop thinking about Daniel Logan. For the first time vague, unnamed sensations were flitting through her mind, skittering down her backbone and shooting little tremors of energy outward beneath her skin. It wasn't the situation that was responsible for her restlessness, it was the man. She wondered if she'd mortgaged her soul to the devil, knowing that even if she had, it was too late to back out.

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