The night of the dinner party arrived. Cook, James, and the rest of the staff outdid themselves.
Nellie dressed with extra care in her new black evening gown. The design was the latest style, sleeveless and slightly off the shoulder. The bodice was the most daring she’d ever worn. She kept pulling it up, but her cleavage was still on display.
She checked herself in the full-length cheval mirror in her bedroom.
“Beautiful,” Blake’s deep baritone sounded behind her.
She jumped, her heart pounded. “Blake. You startled me.”
“I knocked but you were concentrating so hard on tugging up your neckline, you didn’t hear me.”
She nodded. “Don’t you think it’s a bit low?”
“Not compared to what I’m used to. It’s a very attractive dress, and you’ll be the envy of all the other wives. Here,” he handed her a long, skinny jewelry box. “I think they’ll look spectacular with that frock.”
She opened the case and saw one large emerald pendant, the size of a robin’s egg on a delicate gold chain and two matching ear bobs.
“Oh, Blake, they’re lovely, but I can’t accept such an extravagant gift.”
“Of course, you can. You’re my wife and if I want to buy you nice jewelry, I will. Besides you can pass them down to Violet when she’s old enough.”
She fingered the magnificent stone.
“Help me put it on, please.” She handed him the necklace, then turned her back. There was no need to lift her hair. She’d styled it in a chignon at the back of her head.
The stone hung about two inches above her décolletage. She fastened on the ear bobs then turned to Blake.
“What do you think?”
“You’re beautiful. Your eyes are the same deep shade as the emeralds.” Blake put his hands on her upper arms, fire burned where he touched. Then he leaned down and kissed her. The kiss was gentle at first, then deeper and more carnal. By the time he ended the kiss and leaned back, his arms were around her waist and her arms were wrapped around his neck.
“Oh, my.” Heart pounding, she unwrapped her arms and touched her lips, no doubt swollen from such a spectacular mingling. “Oh, my.”
He laughed. “Indeed.” He held his arm out for her, and together, they went down stairs to greet their guests.
Cook had prepared a delightful menu for the evening consisting of turtle soup, a salad of fresh greens from their garden, followed by roasted suckling pig and a chocolate torte for dessert. Conversation was lively, and consisted mostly of talk of the transcontinental railroad. Several of the men had invested in the Central Pacific Railroad and now speculated on its ability to beat the Union Pacific across the country. Still others were concerned with the shipping business and how the railroad would affect it.
After dinner, the gentlemen retired to the library for brandy and cigars. Nellie took the ladies to the parlor for tea. They were having a lively conversation about Nellie’s dress and Paris fashion in general. Nellie was about to ask the women to talk to their husbands about the family emporium Blake wanted to build, when James entered.
“I’m sorry to disturb you, madam, but Miss Singer has arrived and insists on seeing you.”
Before Nellie could respond Maddie Singer sashayed past James and into the room.
“You don’t need to announce me, James.” She hiccupped and swayed on her feet. “The missus and I are old friends.”
“We are nothing of the kind. What do you want, Miss Singer?” Nellie stood, and held herself as straight as she could manage with anger and embarrassment warring inside. “What can I help you with this time?”
“Call me Maddie. Everybody does.”
“Very well, Maddie, what do you want?”
“I want you to leave Blake alone. He’s mine. You hear me? I changed my work schedule with Trixie. He doesn’t know yet, but I’m working with him on Monday.”
Maddie swayed again, but caught herself before she fell.
James reached toward her, but stood back the moment she straightened.
“James, get Mr. Malone, please,” said Nellie, approaching the inebriated woman with caution. “You’ve imbibed too much alcohol, Maddie. How did you get here?”
“I came in a cab. Why?” She glared at her and Nellie knew there was trouble brewing.
Nellie took her firmly by the elbow and steered her back out of the room into the hallway.
“Did the cab wait for you, Maddie?”
“Hell, no.” She struggled to her free arm. “I ain’t going back to The Nugget wifout Blake.”
“Nellie,” said Blake from behind her. “Let me deal with her.”
She looked up at her husband and saw his beautiful gray eyes, now storm-filled and angry.
“Be gentle with her, Blake. She’s drunk and doesn’t really know what she’s doing.”
He gave her a curt nod and then said to James, “Get Otis and have him bring the carriage around to the front. Quickly, man, before she causes any more damage.”
Nellie turned to the ladies who had followed her into the hallway and were now whispering behind their hands. She had to control the situation for Blake’s sake.
“Come, ladies, let’s return to the salon. There’s nothing more to see out here.” She shooed the women back into the parlor like they were so many little chicks and she was putting them into the hen house.
“Dat’s right, ladies, nothin’ to see here,” shouted Maddie from the entry way.
Nellie shut the door behind her once all the women were back inside.
“I apologize for that disruptive episode. What were we discussing? Oh yes, Paris fashions.”
“Forget that,” said Mrs. Adams as she leaned forward. She was a blond woman who was as thin as her husband was fat. “Who was that woman?”
Nellie sighed. She wouldn’t get by without explaining. “She works for my husband at his establishment, The Nugget. I’m afraid she’s imbibed too much drink.”
“What does she want with your husband?” asked Mrs. Walpole, a buxom redhead, about ten years older than Nellie. Her husband was much older, but still spry as far as Nellie could tell.
“I haven’t any idea,” Nellie said the bald-faced lie without batting an eyelash.
Of course, she knew what Maddie wanted. She wanted Blake, and Nellie was afraid she might have him if Nellie didn’t decide to trust him, and soon. What man wants a cold fish for a wife?
Before very long, the men came in to collect their wives. The evening was over. Maddie Singer had seen to that. That was unfortunate, because until that point the dinner and resulting conversations had gone very well.
After the door closed for the final time, Nellie went upstairs and prepared for bed. She removed the beautiful pendant and ear bobs, returning them to the silk lined box they came in. She was sitting in her robe at her dressing table when Blake came through the door from the hall.
“I’m sorry Nellie,” he said as he ran a hand through his hair..
“For what? You can’t control what she does. She’s responsible for this debacle, not you.” She started to braid her waist length hair. “I understand that.”
“I should have fired her before. I’ll do it tomorrow.”
“She should be there for your shift. She told me in no uncertain terms that she had changed her work hours to coincide with yours.”
“What?” His eyes widened and he started pacing. “When did she do that? I work with Trixie. I promised you that, and I don’t break my promises. Not to you, Nellie. Neverto you.”
Nellie shook her head. “She told me tonight, and said that you didn’t know. She’s very determined to have you for her own, Blake.” She finished her hair and now concentrated on the items on her vanity, moving the brush and comb into alignment. “Are you sure you don’t want to take her up on her offer?”
He stalked across the room and pulled her to her feet and into his arms. “I assure you, Nellie Malone, the only woman I want is you. I’ll wait as long as you want me to.” His lips crashed onto hers. He possessed her. His tongue found her willing mouth open for his taste.
She loved the way he tasted. A bit of brandy marked his tongue and it was lovely.
She returned his kiss and his ardor. Tired of waiting and of being the good wife to a dead man, Nellie wanted Blake as much as he wanted her.
“You told me there are things we can do, that will not be making love, but that I would enjoy. Is that true?” she whispered as his lips left fiery kisses up and down her neck. “Please, teach me.”
“Oh, Nellie, I’ve waited so long for you to say those words.”
He stepped back, untied her robe and pushed it off her shoulders, letting it fall unceremoniously to the floor.
She stood before him, naked, not just without clothes, but without protection of any kind. She was offering him not only her body, but more importantly, her trust. He’d managed to work his way inside her heart, with his kindness to her and the children, with his obvious love of Violet and growing fondness for Henry. He’d won her over with his honorable ways, putting her first over his business, over Maddie.
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