Gabriel’s Lady

Angels of Mercy, Book 4

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

Those were the words spoken at his beautiful young bride’s graveside, but Gabriel Getty found they held little comfort for him. At twenty-seven, his life was over: his wife and unborn child gone, his career as a lawyer ruined, his hopes dashed. Then, in his darkest hour, he found Solace.

I will fear no evil, for You are with me.

She was full of life, energy and daring. Solace Monroe was a writer of dime novels, a horse trainer, a rider in a Wild West show, and she didn’t seem to be afraid of anything. Not until a rival was murdered, she was accused and all society shunned her for the very individuality Gabe loved. This time he had the strength and know-how to protect his woman; this time he would have faith that Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life.

Read an Excerpt

Prologue

St. Louis, Missouri. June, 1880

“I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss your beautiful bride, Mr. Getty.”

Gabe Getty thought his heart might fly out of his chest like a wild bird set free—even though the delicate face before him represented a whole new kind of commitment: settling down into a new life. New family. New responsibilities.

He fumbled with the wispy veil that floated like a cloud around Letitia Bancroft—now Letitia Getty, his wife!—and raised it over her golden upswept hair. “You are beautiful, Letitia,” he whispered, “and I love you so much I—I can’t find the words.”

“So kiss me, Gabriel. It’s what everyone’s waiting for.”

Letitia’s blue eyes closed and her soft face radiated a surrender that made him want to gulp her down and swallow her whole. But they were in church, being observed by dozens of St. Louis’s most influential lawyers and captains of industry. Not to mention Arthur and Henrietta Bancroft, his bride’s protective parents. He dared not challenge propriety during this sacred, long-awaited moment.

Letitia’s lips parted. She sighed up at him. The tiny hands on his shoulders relaxed. He felt her pulse racing with his…inviting him into that primal mating dance with all its mysteries, for which he’d waited so long.

He kissed her eagerly, spanning her tiny waist with his hands. So fragile she felt in his embrace, despite the rigid bands of whalebone beneath her white dress. Gabe set aside thoughts of peeling away her layers of clothing—

Letitia’s lips slipped from his too soon. When he opened his eyes, her face looked deathly pale beneath her rouge. When she collapsed, he had to grab her so she wouldn’t slip down his front.

“Letitia!” he rasped. “Somebody—”

Gabe glanced anxiously at the minister, and then at his best man Billy Bristol. “She’s passed out! I don’t know what to—”

A frantic cry rose from the first pew as Billy steadied Letitia’s dead weight. “Better get her to the floor to get some blood back to her head,” he murmured. “Then we’ll loosen that–”

“Letitia!” her mother squawked. “Wake up, sweetheart!”

Gabe winced at her shrill voice, and at the matron huffing up the chancel steps. The church filled with whispering as the minister spoke out.

“Just a case of the jitters,” he announced with a chuckle. “Happens quite often, actually, so—”

“You must not put her on the floor!” Henrietta Bancroft topped the steps and bustled toward him. “We can not soil that exquisitely expensive gown by—she can’t bend at the waist, you fool! What do you think smelling salts are for? If you weren’t so eager to satisfy your animal urges—”

Letitia’s mother plucked a small bottle from her reticule and doused her handkerchief with a foil-smelling liquid. Then she held it over her daughter’s nose.

Gabe’s eyes watered from the camphor fumes, yet he could see Billy trying not to laugh…could feel waves of indignation rolling off Mrs. Bancroft’s substantial body as she wedged herself between him and his unconscious bride.

Letitia coughed like a sick kitten.

“Wake up, darling!” Henrietta cooed. “Show everyone how a young lady of your upbringing carries on after a lapse of—Lord, it’s a hundred and ten degrees in here, Reverend Stilton! And you, Mr. Getty, are squeezing the breath from Letitia’s poor lungs!”

“Mama?” Letitia’s eyes widened with mortification. “Oh, my stars—Gabriel, don’t you dare let me fall! I’ll never get up!”

“Easy now. We’ve got you covered,” Billy said. “Find your feet and take a few deep breaths to make the room stop spinnin’. Gabe would never let you fall—or let you down, either. Some punch and cake’ll bring you ‘round, so’s all these folks can congratulate you, Mrs. Getty.”

“Oh, I couldn’t dream of eating—”

Letitia realized then that dozens of eyes were focused on her. Dozens of ears followed her every halting word. So she rose to the challenge: stood upright and lifted her head in that fetching yet determined tilt Gabe had always found captivating.

“You’re right, Mr. Bristol,” Letitia whispered. “I am Mrs. Gabriel Getty. I should act the part.”

She took a deep breath—as deep as her gown would allow, anyway—and focused her blue eyes on her hundreds of admirers. “I’m fine now—really I am! Thank you all for your concern,” she said in a lilting voice. “Shall we proceed to the reception?”

As Gabe flashed a grateful smile at his red-haired best friend, the organist struck up a triumphant recessional. Billy had the same way with skittish women as he did with the Morgan horses he raised; the same down-to-earth, unruffled manner he’d had when they were kids.

Gabe had a sobering thought as he slipped his bride’s tiny hand into the crook of his elbow: what would he do, once it was just himself and Letitia, and she had one of her fainting spells? Or if she refused to eat? What if he couldn’t tease her out of her dark moods when things didn’t go her way?

Mrs. Bancroft urged him forward with a jab of her finger.

Smiling bravely at all the blurred faces in the congregation, Gabe Getty escorted his new wife down the aisle. His mother-in-law followed so closely he could hear her shallow, determined breathing…could feel the heat of her condescension.

From here on, he might run but he could never hide. Henrietta and her husband insisted on knowing every little thing that happened to their daughter—usually before he did.

“Oh, Letitia, you swooned at his kiss—”

“How romantic that he caught you and—”

“You look like an absolute queen in that gown! And he’d better treat you like one every single day!”

Gabe smiled at these remarks from beside the punch bowl, a safe distance from Letitia’s highly excitable bridesmaids. He’d known them all at Miss Vanderbilt’s Academy for Young Ladies, where he’d lodged while serving out an apprenticeship in Arthur Bancroft’s law practice. He could’ve chosen any one of them as his bride, but Letitia had caught his eye and captured his heart from the beginning.

“Congratulations, Gabe,” Billy’s husky voice broke into his thoughts. “Won’t be long before you’re actin’ like an old married man and chasin’ after your kids. Just like me.”

“You’ve always made that look so easy, Billy. You’re a hard act to follow.” His best man cradled a redheaded baby on his shoulder as though it were the most natural thing in the world. Meanwhile, his eyes seldom strayed from his four-year-old daughter Olivia, who whirled in a gleeful circle to make her new dress billow out around her legs.

“You’ll do fine, Gabe. Gotcha a good job and a nice house. Pretty bride to make life worthwhile.” Billy sidled closer, nuzzling his son’s temple. “You’ve done right well, for a kid who lost his family to Injuns and grew up in a two-room log house. Who’d’ve ever dreamed you’d be practicin’ the law and hobnobbin’ with the likes of these folks?”

Gabe smiled at the roomful of tuxedoed gentlemen and bejeweled ladies. He was indeed a fortunate man. “Agatha Vanderbilt handed me the opportunity of a lifetime when she introduced me to Arthur Bancroft,” he agreed. “I—I just hope I’m ready to—”

“Oh, you’ll never feel ready,” Billy teased. “You gotta jump in feet first and pray a lot. Somehow, it all works out.”

As though he already recognized the wisdom of this, little Owen raised his downy head to flash his daddy a toothless grin. Billy chuckled back, totally enthralled by the son who already looked just like him.

Something tightened in his chest, and Gabe glanced away. Such love was written on his best friend’s face, he envied Billy Bristol in more ways than he could count. And yet, when he glanced back at the gaggle of young women around Letitia—his wife, and the beginning of his own dreams come true–he wondered if he would ever share that all-engrossing devotion so evident between Billy and Eve Bristol. They’d married in turmoil: Eve had birthed Olivia out of wedlock, because Billy’s outlaw twin had abandoned her. Yet they made a shining example of how love could climb the highest mountains.

Maybe it was wedding day jitters making his stomach roll…maybe his bride was still shaken from fainting at the altar…so maybe she wouldn’t always depend on that little silver flask she’d just tipped to her lips. Once the wedding was behind them…once they settled into their fine new home just four doors down from Letitia’s parents, everything would be all right. Wouldn’t it?

From a few yards away, surrounded by her matronly friends, Henrietta Bancroft glared at him. Did she never intend to let his happiness happen? How was it that even in this reception hall a-buzz with happy conversations—two hundred people come to share this day—he felt singled out for Mrs. Bancroft’s disapproval?

Gabe pasted on a smile. It was time to take his place beside his bride—to let her delicate perfume tease him while she still wore that voluminous gown of virginal white. In a few hours, he could finally tell Letitia how much he longed for her. He could tell her how lovely and wonderful she was, without parental ears or tattletale domestics listening in.

“Excuse me while I steal a kiss,” he murmured to Billy.

He caught his bride’s gaze—so elegant she was, with her blue eyes and creamy complexion…golden hair he longed to unpin. Letitia graced him with a flirtatious grin and his heart soared. He surged toward her, barely aware of the couples who stepped out of his way with their raised punch cups.

With lips pressed together and a protective rise of her eyebrow, Henrietta arrived at her daughter’s side first. “Come along, dear! We mustn’t ignore the ladies from the Literary Club, who so graciously hosted your shower last week.”

Letitia glanced at Gabe, her smile wavering. “Yes, Mother. You’re right, of course.”

“Didn’t Letitia look lovely in that gown? So perfect she could’ve been a doll!” Ten-year-old Grace let out a languid sigh, pointing her pinkie as she sipped her punch. “I’m going to look that beautiful when I’m a bride, too!”

Solace Monroe rolled her eyes at her youngest sister, forking up the last crumbs of her cake. “Hope you’ll let Asa or Temple make your wedding cake, though. This may be fancy fare, but it’s got no taste.”

“Solace!” their sister Lily hissed, “you shouldn’t make such remarks where the bride or her mother will hear you! We’re fortunate to be here, and to be considered Gabe’s family.”

“Say what you want, but I’ll never truss myself up so tight I pass out! Matter of fact, I never intend to wear a corset at all!” Solace announced. “Letitia didn’t even taste her wedding cake! Embarrassed poor Gabe—and worried him, too—when he tried to feed her a bite and she turned away.”

Lily, ever the princess in her frilly pink frock, raised a catlike eyebrow. “You’ll change your tune if somebody as handsome as Gabe looks your way! You’re so caught up in your horses—”

“You’ll have to change completely to interest anyone like Gabe!” Gracie chimed in. “Me, I’ll be the perfect wife someday! Daddy says so!”

Solace bit back a retort when she saw their mother coming. Why did Gracie do her lessons and household chores so effortlessly, at ten, and get away with telling everyone how wonderful she was, too? And Lily had always looked picture perfect—like that parlor portrait Billy’s wife had painted. And her singing had distinguished her since she was even younger than Grace.

Solace whirled on her heel. Once again she felt dowdy and outdone, like a sparrow among swans. Once again her sisters’ words had stabbed her like spears. She threw open the social hall’s back door to escape to the small garden behind the church. The shade of the old maple trees and the nickering of the horses, tied beyond the carriages, brought welcome relief from the savage inner pain that welled up without warning these days.

As she drew a deep breath of the hot June afternoon, the door opened behind her. Solace sighed, willing away her tears.

“Are you all right, dear? I was just coming over to say how proud I am of my three pretty girls and the way they’ve behaved—”

“Mama, you shouldn’t lie. Especially at church.” Solace kept her back turned, detesting the way her throat tightened in anticipation of this little talk. Why couldn’t people just leave her alone when she felt this way?

“What do you mean? You girls seemed to having such a nice time—”

“Yeah, but that was before Saint Grace reminded me how I’ll never be smart and lovable and perfect, like her,” she retorted. “Then Princess Lily turned up her pretty little nose as though I’d stepped in some horse hockey. They act like no man’ll have me because I’m socially unacceptable and so—so ugly!”

Mama stopped behind her, laying a hand on her shoulder. “Did they come right out and say those things, Solace?”

“No, but a deaf idiot couldn’t miss their meaning!” She swiped at a tear. “Just standing in the same room with ‘em makes me feel homely and worthless, Mama! I wish I could live at Billy’s, so’s I could help train his horses without those—those paragons telling me how rude and crude I am!”

Mama gently turned her around. Here it came—another mother-daughter talk that was supposed to make her feel special. But such advice made her bite her tongue nearly in two, trying not to argue back. Life would be so much easier if she’d been a boy!

Mama gazed at her. She started to smooth back a wavy lock of hair that had escaped her ribbon, but thought better of it. “You probably tire of me saying this, Solace, but every time I look at you I see your father. And while I never let on in front of the others, I feel such an overwhelming love I nearly cry with pride.”

Her mother blinked rapidly to clear her large brown eyes, and her smile softened. “While I love Lily dearly, she’s not my true daughter, as you and Gracie are. And while Grace is a joy—and yes, constantly reminds us of that!—she’ll never have your practical way of seeing things and solving—”

“And she’ll never have troublesome hair or wide, bulky shoulders, or—”

“That’s because her daddy’s a slender man. And nobody’s prouder than Michael that you have a strong, steady hand with the horses, Solace—just as your father did.” Mama cleared her throat before she could go on. “And nobody’s prouder than I that you look and act so much like Judd Monroe.”

Her mother, a brown-haired beauty in her own quiet way, squeezed her shoulders. “I never realized you felt so uncomfortable around your sisters, honey. You’ve always reveled in your horsemanship and your independent—”

“But what if they’re right?” she blurted. “What if no man’ll give me a second glance because I’m bowlegged from riding bareback and—”

“I predict, dear Solace, that you’ll attract the most wonderful, loving man of all my girls, simply because you won’t chase after him,” Mama declared in a low voice. “You’ll simply be yourself. Not a woman molded by society’s whims.”

“Or corsets,” Solace muttered. “It was my swearing to never wear one that made Lily and Grace insist I’ll never—”

“Sweetheart, you’re only eleven! You have plenty of changes to go through—and you’ll handle them on your own terms. And maybe, now that Lily will be attending Aunt Agatha’s academy, you won’t feel so….”

“Ugly? Boyish?” Solace remarked bitterly.

Unique,” Mama insisted. “In this world of pinched-in waistlines and ladylike details that exasperate you, you stand head and shoulders above every young lady I know.”

“Now you’re saying I’m too tall!”

“I’m saying you’re you, Solace. I still marvel at how Asa knew to name you that, for you’ve truly been my comfort—my reason for going on—during the trials of my lifetime.”

Mama cupped her chin and gently raised her face. Solace was again reminded how very, very special she might feel if she could just believe what her mother said.

“You’re created in God’s image,” her mother murmured. “You’re the very image of your handsome, loving father, as well, and no one will ever take your place. No one will ever fill your shoes or follow in your footsteps, because you’ll always blaze your own trails!”

Mama leaned closer now, so they stood nearly eye-to-eye. “That’s an exciting way to live your life, Solace, and I hope you let no one talk you out of it! Someday soon you’ll realize how blessed you are—and how beautiful—because of who you are.”

Dang it, now she wanted to cry because Mama had made her feel better! Was there no getting off this emotional seesaw? “Th-thank you, Mama. You really don’t have to go on and on about—”

“I’ll do whatever it takes to make you feel worthy. If you want to go to the the Academy with Lily—”

“I wouldn’t last five minutes tryin’ to figure out flatware placement.”

“—or consider an apprenticeship in town to learn merchandising, you’ve certainly got a head for that.”

“I want to be a trick rider. A sharp shooter, like Calamity Jane.”

Just saying those words made her blood pump hard through her body—even though her mother let out that same sigh every time. The ostrich plume on Mama’s pretty lavender hat quivered when she laughed softly. “You’ve been reading too many of those dime novels—”

“But at least I’m reading! And you’ve heard Billy invite me to help at his horse ranch, so’s I can train my own mounts to—”

“We’ll see, Solace.”

She let out an exasperated sigh. We’ll see generally meant not in this lifetime. But it wasn’t a flat-out no!

Solace fixed a smile on her face and stood taller. “I really do feel better about things now, Mama,” she said primly, “and if it’s all right with you, I’d enjoy a few more minutes of this shade and fresh air. Some of those ladies are wearing so much perfume I can hardly breathe.”

Her mother’s lopsided smile said she wasn’t fooled, but at least this conversation had come to a satisfactory end. “Being the middle daughter—being your age—isn’t the easiest thing, honey,” she said as she turned toward the door. “But whatever you choose to do—even if you never find a man worthy of your loving, trusting heart—I’ll always love you more than life itself.”

Once again heat welled up into her cheeks, but Solace smiled bravely. After all, Mercedes Malloy never uttered a word she didn’t mean: when her two sisters rubbed her like a badly fitted pair of chaps, she could count on Mama to champion her cause.

As the church door drifted shut behind that elegant dress and the purple feather of her mother’s hat, a waltz teased her. Solace grinned. While she wasn’t as dainty as Lily or Grace, she had a natural sense of rhythm that made her shine at anything physical. She slipped a small rock into the doorway so the music would soothe her as she stood in the shade.

And, because no one was there to make fun of her, she swayed to the three-quarter beat while the chamber orchestra played a song she’d heard Lily practicing on the piano. By an Austrian composer named Strauss, she thought.

Not that it mattered. All Solace cared about was being able to move without everyone watching her—telling her how she’d bungled the basic waltz steps Temple Gates, their tutor, had taught them at home.

Smiling broadly, Solace stepped back with her right foot and then sideways with her left. “One-two-three,” she mumbled with each measure.

As the waltz grew louder and more dramatic, she dipped and swayed to match its mood. Her eyes closed….and as she lifted her arms to where her partner’s shoulder and hand would be, she allowed her imagination free rein. She saw Gabe Getty in her mind’s eye, just as he would be leading Letitia in this grand dance right now….

His eyes would be shining as he smiled down at his bride, and Letitia would gaze adoringly at him as they circled the dance floor in graceful perfection together. While she didn’t cotton to all the frippery that went with being female—like corsets and frilly underthings—Solace still dreamed of dancing with a man who admired her, and who wanted her to dance only with him, again and again.

As the music played on, she lost herself in the imaginary world where life went well no matter what she did or said. In her daydreams, her dance partners and the men who rode their fine horses alongside her complimented her courage and strength…accepted her for the way she trained a horse, rather than expecting her to sew stylish clothes and make inane conversation with other ladies over tea and prissy little cakes.

And then it was Gabe she danced with in her imagination…dipping and gliding gracefully while Lily and Grace gawked in envy from the chairs along the wall!

At least the three of them had agreed on one thing: their longtime friend Gabriel Getty had grown into quite a handsome catch while he’d been away, studying the law with Mr. Bancroft! He wore his dark brown hair clipped shorter now, although an occasional curl still dangled over his spectacles. He dressed well, too, as befitted an up-and-coming man of the law, and his voice sounded low and controlled. Gabe sported sideburns now, along with the shadow of a beard where once his skin had been as smooth and bronzed as her own.

Maybe he won’t like your sun-browned skin. He chose a hothouse flower for a bride, didn’t he?

She dismissed such a thought, because it was her story and she could write it any way she wanted! In her mind, Gabriel Getty delighted in dancing with her even though he was married now. Even though, after today, she might never have reason to see him again.

A crescendo signaled the finale of the grand waltz, so Solace threw herself into a series of dips and turns that made her skirts billow. High on her toes she spun, delirious with the thrill of executing these moves so effortlessly, because Gabe was such a skillful dancer himself that—

“Whoever your partner is, he’s a lucky man.”

Her eyes flew open. She’d been so caught up in the music she hadn’t heard the door open. Now Gabe was smiling at her, but this was no daydream! Solace dropped her arms. Her face flushed ten shades of red as polite applause filled the hall at the song’s end. “I—you probably think—”

“I think you’re an exceptional dancer,” he assured her. “I’m glad you’re enjoying the music, but why are you waltzing out here instead of—”

“Stuffy in there.”

Gabe blinked. Solace Monroe had always had a quick, honest wit—a trait he found refreshing these days. “You’ve got that right,” he murmured. “And we’re not just talking about the summer heat, are we?”

Regret stabbed his heart—not just for admitting such a thing to Billy’s kid sister, but for feeling this way. Desperation had driven him outside after another trying incident, or he wouldn’t have interrupted her play-acting. “I’m sorry I said that, Solace. I didn’t mean to burden you with—”

“Something else go wrong? I—I hope Letitia’s all right.” She focused on him in that forthright way she had, as though she could see though his excuses. “Or is it her mother again? That woman can’t be happy unless she’s making everyone else miserable!”

Laughter welled up inside him, a release so powerful he hurried over to hug her. “Solace, I—don’t you go running your mouth, now!–but I truly don’t understand how Arthur Bancroft still draws a sane breath!”

“You’re worried about her running your life, aren’tcha?”

Gabe inhaled fiercely and stepped away from her. How old was Solace now, maybe ten or twelve? Yet she’d summed up his situation as though it should’ve been perfectly obvious that—

After two years of courting Letitia, you didn’t really believe you’d muzzle her bulldog of a mother, did you?

He cleared his throat, wondering how much he should entrust to her. He’d stew his goose for sure if any part of this conversation made it back to Henrietta’s fleshy little ears. “You were always a straight shooter, Solace. I’m glad to see that hasn’t changed.”

“You dodged my question, Gabe.”

Her heart pounded furiously at her own impertinence: this situation was none of her business, even if she had known Gabe Getty all her life. Was she acting particularly rude because he’d caught her dancing alone? Or was she flustered because this handsome man in the dove gray frock coat and trousers had stepped out of her daydream to hug and compliment her? His spectacles twinkled in the sunlight as he studied her.

“I’m sorry I said that,” she wheezed. “Please forgive me for being such a—”

“Nothing to forgive, squirt. You were stating the obvious.” He took in her stiff new dress and realized how uncomfortable she was today, as well. And wasn’t it a pleasure to hear someone apologize? No whining or bossing or manipulating—not from from this sun-kissed kid with the dark, sparkling eyes.

“Too bad young ladies don’t go into the law, Miss Monroe. You’ve certainly got the sharp mind and agile tongue for it.”

Solace blinked. Had he said she was smart? Called her a young lady? “After the chat I just had with Mama, I’m sure she’d rather see me be a lawyer than a trick rider in the circus. But it’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”

“No reason you can’t amaze audiences with your riding and sharp-shooting,” he mused. “But I’m sure Michael and your mother would prefer…a safer kind of life than a well-raised, attractive young woman would find among roustabouts and carnival barkers.”

Had he just called her attractive, or was she still daydreaming? Solace nodded, not sure why she felt…giddy, standing in the shade with this man of the world—who’s really just Billy’s best friend in a frock coat, talking in a deeper voice these days, she reminded herself.

“No doubt you’re right, Gabe. Many’s the time I’ve wished I was a boy, so’s I could get out and do what I’m truly good at!”

“And what a shame that would be. If you were a boy, that is.”

And where was that sentiment headed? While he could easily imagine the fetching woman Solace Monroe would grow into, he probably shouldn’t encourage her to join the circus. She was just willful and bullheaded enough to do it!

He’d have hell to pay if Letitia or her mother found him out here, too. Even though he and Solace were just seeking some sanity in the shade. Even though he was what? Ten years older than she, and a lifelong friend of her family?

Gabe sensed he could admit the whole truth to Solace: that after his bride had nearly fainted again, during the first dance, Henrietta had whisked Letitia away to settle her frazzled nerves: bed rest in a cool, dark room. And it was not a cool, dark room in his house, even though Letitia was now his wife.

As the orchestra struck up another waltz, he tamped down the resentment and pain he could’ve safely expressed to Solace: she was a kid, but she already had him figured, didn’t she? She wouldn’t judge him or lecture him about getting lost in the luster of Letitia’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and her daddy’s law firm. She would state the obvious and let him kick himself.

The music soothed him. It conjured up visions of elegance and romance—the kind Solace had immersed herself in, judging from the exquisite smile on her face while she’d danced alone. She was swaying to the three-quarter beat again, and not even aware of it.

To hell with what Henrietta would think! It was his wedding day, too, and he would by God dance to that orchestra’s music even if his bride had been snatched from him! Why not enjoy one waltz before he subjected himself to the obligatory dances with Henrietta’s friends?

Gabe cleared his throat and gathered his courage: Solace had the power to crush him with her rejection—or laughter—even though she didn’t know it.

“May I have the honor—the pleasure—of this waltz, Miss Monroe?”

Solace’s jaw dropped. The handsome man standing before her had said that without batting an eye! May I have the honor—the pleasure—of this waltz? If she lived to be a hundred, this moment would shine like a diamond in her mind!

Somehow she curtsied without tripping over her stiff new shoes or saying something stupid. “I would be delighted, Mister Getty,” she replied in a tight whisper.

And just like that, all the pretty pictures in her mind became real.

She was circling the small garden with Gabriel Getty! He could’ve asked a hundred other ladies—Letitia’s friends from the Academy, or wealthy clients’ wives—but he’d chosen her!

Hold yourself tall! BACK-two-three, UP-two-three! Smile and make pleasant conversation, to show your partner you’re enjoying his company!

These instructions from Temple Gates evaporated like the dew on summer flowers as she gazed up at him. Gabe was grinning at her, as though he were having a grand time instead of humoring Billy Bristol’s kid sister.

She laughed, in spite of how improper that might be. Why hadn’t she paid more attention to the social niceties Mama had tried to impress upon her? Any minute now, she’d step on his foot, or—

“It’s nice to see someone smiling at me, Solace. Thank you.” Gabe led her down the brick walkway in a series of simple pivots. When had this little girl grown so tall that she ducked to spin under his arm? But spin she did, and confidently, too.

“When you came outside, Gabe, it was you I was dancing—” Solace’s cheeks flared, but it was too late to back out of her revelation. “All us girls were talking about how lucky Letitia was to catch you. I never figured it’d be me you’d dance with today, or that it’d be so much fun!”

Fun. He hadn’t thought about fun for a long time. Gabe chuckled at her confession, not really believing her compliment: this was Solace, the outspoken one, after all. Yet he was glad he’d asked her to dance. The other ladies would expect him to flatter their gowns, or they’d quiz him about Letitia and whether he should be looking after her—as though Henrietta would allow him to!

“Yes, it is fun!” he agreed. As he spun her toward the door, Gabe reveled in Solace’s delight…in her strong, solid body and a face that glowed with health…in the way she gawked at him, as someone too young to understand the complexities of marriage. He recalled special times he’d spent with her blended family—how different they were from the Bancrofts!—and his heart swelled.

Was it from the pleasure he’d known in the Malloy home? Or the pain of impending regret?

That was ridiculous, of course: he and Letitia were madly in love. She would come around to her pretty, winsome self again after all the strain of this day was behind them. His agitation came from playing his part as the groom, in a well-heeled world he was just getting accustomed to.

Too soon the music came to a halt. Solace allowed herself one last gaze at his handsome face. “Thank you, Mr. Getty,” she said in the most adult tone she could muster. “I’ve never enjoyed a dance so much.”

“Nor have I!” Gabe squeezed her sturdy hands. Took a last look at thick, sorrel waves that escaped their ribbon to drift around a face filled with exuberance and delight…wide brown eyes that shone with integrity and innocence beneath long, dark lashes. He almost reminded her to behave herself and follow her heart—all those adult things one said to a friend’s kid sister. But all he could manage was, “Well, squirt, I should go back inside, before—”

“I understand,” she whispered. “Thank you again, Gabe. You made me feel very special today.”

He nodded and entered the reception hall again. For all his years of experience presenting evidence to judges and juries, he’d been rendered tongue-tied by a tomboy’s simple gratitude. Solace had made him feel special, too. He wondered, bleakly, if that would happen again any time soon.

But where were his manners? He should’ve held the door and asked if she wanted a cup of punch or—

But here came Arthur Bancroft with a pointed gaze and a handful of bankers. Gabe sighed; put on a smile as he extended his hand to them. Best to leave Solace Monroe in that land of her happy imagination.

And in his.

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