The Most Wanted Bachelor



Kathryn has set her sights on the most wanted bachelor in Denver. But, once she realizes his love is worth more than his loot, will she be forgiven?

Avon · isbn: 0-380-80497-2



The Most Wanted Bachelor went back to press! Many thanks to all of you who gave a book a good home. (posted 8.02)

The Most Wanted Bachelor was a Romantic Times BOOKclub Top Pick for June (Yes, this is good ~ this means that one of the top reviewing magazine's picked BACHELOR as one of the top books for June!). (posted 7.00)

And to grant even more kudos to Bachelor, Daniel Sellington, BACHELOR's hero won a KISS (Knight in Shining Silver) award from RT for being one of their reviewer's favorite heroes of the month.


The hardest thing about typing THE END (which is otherwise one of life's truly grand experiences!) is leaving the characters behind. I don't so much mind leaving the hero and heroine, who are blissfully settled. It's the other characters I find hard to abandon, those who haven't had their own stories tied up into a neat little bow. Daniel Sellington was a lonely, frightened little boy in HOME FIRES, and I've never forgotten him. Now he's all delectably grown up, burdened by his father's corrupt legacy and an inheritance he never wanted. He's resigned to a resolutely solitary life until his duty is discharged.

Bet you can guess how long that resolve lasts after he meets the right woman.

--Susan


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Denver, 1887

Daniel Sellington was a rich man. A very, very rich man.

Kathryn Jordan knew little more about him than that. It didn't matter. It was all she needed to know.

She had every intention of marrying him.

Her sweat-dampened fingers clenching, she wrinkled the grimy newspaper she'd clutched ever since she'd found it blown against the soot-streaked back wall of The Schatz House Billiard Hall and Saloon. Never one to overlook the slightest boon, she'd snatched it up. Another crack in the thin walls of her home pitifully armored against the winds roaring off the mountains next winter, she figured. But then the name Sellington, in huge letters black as Satan's heart, had screamed out at her from the front page of The Rocky Mountain News.

She forced her tight grip to relax and studied the face that claimed a full quarter of the page. Edward Sellington, whom she'd heard her mother curse every single day of the last fifteen years, stared coolly back at her. He'd been a handsome man, she thought dispassionately; she'd always imagined him as monstrously disfigured, as if his outer husk must reveal the evil harbored within. Instead, if the artist could be trusted, he'd owned patrician features. Only his eyes, beautifully shaped and framed by elegantly arched brows, hinted at something else; he had mean eyes. She couldn't have said what made them mean, but anyone who grew up in her neighborhood would understand exactly what she meant, and know enough to steer clear of them.

Pity her father hadn't known.

"Sure were a handsome one, weren't he?" The woman to her left nudged a bare, plump elbow into Kathryn's ribs. "Think this one looks anythin' like him?"

Kathryn eyed her. Cheap red satin, as shiny in the August heat as the woman's lavishly exposed skin, erupted above and below her tightly cinched waist. Though the dress was aggressively improper, Kathryn couldn't help envying the ventilation as she sweated in her heavy black mourning dress, handed down from a generous employer. Former employer, she amended bitterly, and formerly generous, for Mrs. Chivington had been anything but generous when she fired her after her son, Richard, claimed Kathryn's behavior was improper - when it had been her emphatic lack of impropriety to which he'd truly objected. Mrs. Chivington had made certain that no other of Denver's leading matrons would ever hire Kathryn for anything, either.

The gloomy, stifling dress had been the best Kathryn could dredge up on short notice. She'd hoped the mourning garb might engender a bit of sympathy. She could use every advantage she could get.

"I imagine," Kathryn said, "that this one's very much like his father." Edward Sellington looked like the type that would breed true.

"Oooh," the woman cooed, a grin of anticipation curving her red-glossed lips. "Seems hardly fair, does it? Rich as that, and looks, too?"

"Hardly fair," Kathryn murmured, her fingers crushing the paper again.

There was little doubt why the woman, and three dozen others, had turned up here at two o'clock on a steaming Tuesday afternoon. They clustered in front of a great iron gate, the solid black bars as sturdy as any that caged a fierce zoo creature. Except these bars, of course, were meant to keep the animals out.

She recognized old Blind Willie, bent over his twisted oak cane, who was no more blind than she was. And Mrs. O'Neill, painfully thin and pale, whose husband had died of a lung hemorrhage three months ago, leaving her with five children under the age of six -- and, by the looks of things, one more to arrive any day. Though Kathryn didn't know the names of any of the others, she recognized them, too, the residents of tent villages and tenements and vermin-infested boardinghouses, equally split between confidence men, - and women - thieves, and the honestly desperate. Oh yes, she recognized them.

She was one of them.

And, just like every one of them, she wanted a piece of the Sellington millions.

Up by the gate, a man with the cadaverous look of a lung patient whacked a stick across the bars, keeping up a steady clang. "Let us in!" he shouted. "We just wants to talk to the bloke!"

The red-clad woman curled a plump lip. "Oh, yeah, that's gonna get them to let us in." She peered at the paper in Kathryn's hand. "Say anything in there about him? What this one's like?"

"It doesn't say much about him." But the News had plenty else to say.

Though she already knew much of what the paper had printed, she'd read every word twice. The article had gone back to the beginning, to the mysterious disappearance of Edward Sellington. One of the richest men in New York, his mining interests in Colorado had only expanded that unimaginable wealth. But nearly fifteen years ago, he, along with his wife and young son, had vanished without a trace.

His mother had spent years searching the west for him. Finally, she'd gone into the monolithic mansion Edward had built on Arapahoe Street and never come out again. Rumor had it grief had finally driven her mad.

There was no fresh news for years. Children avoided the looming house, telling stories of the crazed woman and restless ghosts. The newspapers moved on to more timely topics. But then, five years ago, Edward Sellington's long lost son, Daniel, had suddenly reappeared to claim his heritage.

Just as they had this week, the newsmen had descended immediately, but he'd been unwilling to talk, steadfastly refusing to explain what happened to him or his father all those years ago. He hadn't stayed in town more than a few months before disappearing back from where he came... or so they'd all believed.

Except that he'd been here all along. In Denver, in an ordinary house in Curtis Park, living under the name of Daniel Hall. It was as mysterious and intriguing as the rest of his story.

Here, where she could gain access to him, and to his fortune. And to discover it now, this very week, when the rope she'd been clinging to for years had finally unraveled to one thin, fraying thread. When she'd lost her job and her sister in the space of a day.

It was almost as if Fate were finally taking a hand, giving her a chance to reclaim all that they'd lost.

And all she had to do now was figure out how the hell to manage it.

The mob pressed around her, the smell and the heat and the worry unsettling her stomach. "Excuse me," she said, and squeezed by a well-dressed young man with the sharp-eyed look of a gambler. She gave wide berth to an old man with the stooped posture of one who'd spent years hunched over a gold pan, praying for a nugget -- she'd caught a whiff of him when she'd first arrived, and once was more than enough.

"Givin' up?" the woman called after her, grinning. "Good! That's all the more for the rest of us!"

But she couldn't give up. Kathryn stopped at the edge of the throng, where the air was clearer, her mind whirling with possibilities and half-formed plans as she watched a young, straw-haired boy work his way through the crowd as well, his nimble fingers dipping into pockets and handbags, coming back out empty. As he edged by her, she tapped him on the shoulder.

"If you hope to make a profit," she said, "you'd do well to pick a richer crowd than this."

He looked up at her, surprise in his brown eyes. Then a gap-toothed smile split his narrow face."You saw, huh? Damn. See why I gotta practice on someone?" he asked. "Ain't no one here likely to bother to drag me off to the station, even if'n they catch me. They don' like the cops any better'n me."

"I see," she said. "Still, I'd make sure you didn't pinch so much as a penny, should you find one. The police would be the least of your problem, if any of these people happened to catch you."

"Naw, ain't nobody 'round here quick enough to nab me."

It was true that a good share of his intended victims were either old, infirm, drunk, or some combination of the three. Still, he reminded her too much of her younger brother Thomas a few years ago for her to want to see him beaten for thievery.

"I could," she informed him. "Besides, it never hurts to be careful." She jabbed a finger in the direction of a tall, lean figure clad in brown-flecked tweed who appeared deep in conversation with Blind Willie. "He looks like he might be able to keep up with you, too."

Speculation leaped into the boy's eyes. "Nice suit." "I wouldn't try it, if I were you."

"But you ain't me." He cocked his head. "You gonna cry me out?"

She debated only briefly. The child's moral development was hardly her concern, and she'd learned long ago that worrying about her own family was all she could manage. Not to mention that, from the looks of him, the boy could use the contents of Willie's new friend's pockets far more than he could. Ethics and legalities were trivialities when measured against survival. "Who am I to interfere with free enterprise?"

His smile grew cheeky, then submerged to a frown of concentration. He eased behind an enormous woman in green calico, brushed against the back of the man.

Kathryn suppressed a twinge of guilt. Now where had that come from? She thought she'd rid herself of that inconvenient and useless emotion years ago.

The man's head snapped up, and Kathryn tensed in preparation. Despite all her good intentions about staying out of others' business, she couldn't let the boy be captured.

The thief froze, but when his target didn't move again, he took a slow step backward. Kathryn caught a glimpse of a thick black leather wallet before it disappeared into the depths of the kid's pocket. He flashed her a quick thumbs-up before speeding off down the street.

Well, at least the boy knew when to take his winnings and run, she thought, watching him scurry around the corner. "And how about you, Ma'am?"

Her heart startled into an uneven rhythm as she looked back to find the thief's victim had managed to slip up beside her. Raised in a place where inattentiveness could mean death, she was seldom caught unaware.

"Excuse me?" she asked carefully, grateful that the swath of black veil falling from her hat brim shielded her expression.

"And what's your story? What do you want from Daniel Sellington?"

His waistcoat matched his jacket, an autumn-hued tweed of decent quality, baggily cut. Ink smudged his otherwise crisply white collar. He hunched over a thin pad of paper, pencil in hand, the brim of his black felt bowler hiding his face.

A reporter, she thought in disgust. Every six months or so one of that species ventured to the right bank of the Platte, made earnest speeches about the power of the press to facilitate change, and wrote heart-rending stories about the pitiable conditions to be found in Denver's poorest neighborhoods. Stories that also managed to hint subtly that if those poor souls who survived there -- lived was too optimistic a word for it - had only worked harder, been smarter, made better choices, they wouldn't be in such a deplorable state in the first place.

Nothing ever changed.

"Ma'am?" he repeated without so much as glancing at her, all the while scribbling away furiously.

How dare he? How dare he use their misery, their fragile hopes, to sell his newspapers?

She'd not actually expected to meet Daniel Sellington today. Her mission had been more investigative in nature, although, just in case, she'd formulated a weak story about the Ladies' Assistance Committee and a new orphanage. Now, however, her overactive imagination sprang to the ready.

"I don't want anything from Daniel Sellington," she said softly.

"Of course not." He flipped to a new page. She allowed a distinct quaver to enter her voice.

"I'm here to see Daniel Hall."

"Oh?" His pencil lead was worn to a nub. He glared at it for a moment, swore, and tossed it away before pulling another from behind his left ear.

The least he could do, she thought resentfully, was look at the person he was interviewing. But then she doubted she was a person to him; she was simply a possible story.

"I'm here to --" one pitiful sob should do, she judged "-- to beg him to support his children."

"What?" The fresh lead splintered against the page. His head whipped up, gaze arrowing to her at last.

Oh, unfair! He was younger than she'd thought, his hard, aristocratic features saved from being too grimly severe by the thick fringe of dark hair curling from beneath the brim of his hat. But it was his eyes that caught her, the hot and brutal blue of the August sky, undiminished by the thin barrier of his gold-framed spectacles. Eyes that had no doubt caused too many women to spill far too many stories to this man.

It would do him good, she decided, to waste his time running all over town in a futile attempt to verify her story. Or to print something wildly inaccurate and be called on the carpet by Daniel Sellington himself. Not to mention it would hardly make her unhappy to see a Sellington publicly portrayed in a less than flattering light.

"His children," she repeated.

"Children," he said flatly.

"Yes." She warmed to her role. "Three in four years." She gripped her handbag in both hands and pulled it snug against her belly. "So far," she added in a shy whisper.

"His... children."

Clearly not the quickest fellow in the profession, for all his fine looks. Perhaps it was just as well he was so handsome; it was Fate's compensation for his other deficiencies.

"His... our children," she said slowly, to make certain he caught it all.

"Daniel... Hall's."

"That's what he told me his name was." She groped in her handbag and pulled out a graying, wrinkled handkerchief. "He said he l... he... loved me. But his wife - his wife, she..." Sticking the kerchief beneath her veil, she wailed into it.

"His wife."

"That was what he told me." She looked pointedly at his hand, hovering motionless over the pad. "Shouldn't you be writing this down?"

"Oh. Of course."

"What paper did you say you worked for again?"

"Oh... whoever. Whoever pays me." He waved the pencil in a vague circle.

Yes, it was a very good thing the man at least had looks.

"Yes, his wife. I know it was wrong of me, but, but --"

"But you loved him," he said without inflection, those outrageous blue eyes sharpening in a way that made her wonder if she'd underestimated him after all.

Too much wailing, she concluded, retreating into an occasional watery sniff. "She had all the money, he said. That's why he couldn't support us the way he wanted to, the way he promised he would when he could figure out a way to divorce her and marry me without losing everything."

He contemplated her as a sprinkler cart, pulled by a pair of massive draft horses, rumbled by in the street behind him, spraying the road to keep down the dust. The cascade of fine droplets captured the sunlight and shimmered, the suggestion of a rainbow arching behind the reporter.

The city never watered her street. There, passing vehicles and wandering drunks stirred up the road until you tasted the dust in your mouth every time you stepped outside.

"I don't suppose," he said, "that it's occurred to you that someone else was simply appropriating Mr. Sellington's -- Hall's name, and that it wasn't him at all that...?" His gaze dropped to her stomach, and a flush of red that might have been the heat colored his strong neck.

"Oh, no, it's him, all right." She dabbed at her eyes. "I followed him home once, you see --"

"Had your suspicions even then, did you?"

"I did not! I was only... I could not bear to say goodbye to him that night, you understand, and I wanted to see where he lived with my own eyes, so I could have that image of him to comfort me when we were apart."

"Hmm." He inspected her from the ragged, feather-tufted crown of her hat to the scuffed boots peeking beneath the accordion-pleated hem of her skirt. "And the mourning gear is because...?"

"It is symbolic of the death of my dreams!" she cried, wondering why, despite her best efforts, she'd never been able to make her living on the stage. Horace Steck, the philistine who cast the plays at the Palace Theater, obviously had no taste, or he would have cast her despite her refusal to demonstrate her skills in a more private venue. "He lied to me, all these years! The children and I lived in a hovel, when all this time he could have married me, kept us in the style that his children deserve!"

"Ah." He nodded sympathetically. "You are so very understanding."

"So I've been told." He tapped his pencil against the pad, a steady rhythm in time with the consumptive's banging on Daniel Sellington's front gate. "And your name is?"

"Lavina Thrush. L-A-V-I-" "I believe I can manage to spell it."

"Oh, of course you can! Clever man like you, writing all those words every day."

"It is very taxing. Few people appreciate that."

She sniffled. "That... that was what Daniel always said! That I knew how to appreciate things."

"I'm sure." He flipped his notebook shut and stepped back, jamming his pencil back behind his ear where one of those disobedient waves embraced it. Perhaps, Kathryn thought irrelevantly, he'd tip his hat at her as he left, and she could see if the rest of his hair was just as gorgeous. "I'd best be going. There's much work to be done if I want to get my story finished before the next issue goes to press."

She stretched an entreating hand toward him. "You will... you will help us, then? In your article? Encourage Daniel to live up to his responsibilities and properly care for his family?"

"I'm sure you'll be very pleased with the results, ma'am." He disappeared into the crowd and Kathryn sighed. He'd hadn't once doffed that hat.

Still, he'd proved to be an effective distraction from her problems. She only wished she'd be able to witness the results of the seed she'd just planted. She'd almost be sorry if the handsome young reporter got into too much trouble.

Her own problems, however, could no longer be ignored. A scuffle broke out on the far side of the crowd when a young man refused to relinquish his prized spot near the gate to a more recent, and much larger, arrival. Shouts went up and a small circle cleared as the two combatants tumbled to the ground.

"I'll take the blue-shirted fella!" Blind Willie hollered. "Even odds!"

"You've got it!" another replied, and the enthusiastic spectators closed in to obscure her view.

Standing around here was doing her no good at all. She'd make one circle of Sellington's house and go home to ponder the dilemma out of the sun.

It was not at all the kind of place one would expect to find a rich man living, a far cry from the stone castle where his crazed grandmother resided. Though the neighborhood was decent, it was hardly fashionable. The house itself was much like its neighbors: simple, sturdy, charming, solidly built of brick the color of the sunrise, faced with rows of small, identical windows. It looked like any one of a dozen boardinghouses in this part of the city; perhaps it had been one once, though she couldn't imagine why a man of Sellington's wealth and position would want to live in rooms formerly inhabited by middle-class bachelors.

But the other houses on the street had low, white-painted fences, easily climbed, easily overlooked. Here the iron barrier, at least seven feet tall and tipped with evil-looking spikes, marched all the way around the property. The area it enclosed was as modest as the house, no more than two standard lots, perhaps fifty by one hundred and twenty-five feet.

It was a place that its owner could easily maintain with a few hours of effort on Sunday afternoon. But here, too, Sellington's house differed from its neighbors, for no less than three men worked steadily, pulling weeds from the meticulous flower beds and shearing a uniform eighth of an inch from the neatly clipped grass. Riotous banks of flowers curved shaggy rainbows at the base of the fence and curled lovingly along the house; bright butterflies swooped over the workers' heads, who paid no more notice to them than they did to the people who hollered to them through the fence.

What a waste! Her fingers trailed slowly over black bars gleaming with fresh paint. She could have cared well for her entire family with the money that Sellington spent caring for his lawn. It only served to prove how careless the rich were with their wealth -- which, she supposed, suited her purpose well. It should be all easier to separate him from some of it, one way or the other.

The house sat on a corner lot, and Kathryn turned, happy to leave the mob at the front gate behind. Trees had been planted here two decades ago; now twin lines of oaks reached above, casting blessed shade over the street. There was another gate on this side, guarding a graveled drive that led into stables nearly as large as the house. A young man slumped against the gate, shoulders drooping, cap low. A familiar man, she realized as she drew closer.

"Joey?" she ventured.

"Yeah. Whaddya want?" he snarled.

"Is that any way to speak to your elders, Joey? Especially one who didn't force you to return the nickel you swindled from her brother throwing dice when you were ten?"

He tried to peer under the black netting. "Miz Jordan? Is that you?"

"It's me." She rolled the veil up, tucking it firmly beneath a band of ribbon. "Whew, that's better."

His eyes widened. "Who died?"

"Nobody died, Joey."

"Why ya rigged out in that get-up, then?"

"It's a long story."

"I've got plenty of time," he said glumly.

"Oh?"

"I'm gonna lose my job." Disconsolate, he slid down to sit with his heels against his skinny rump, hands drooping between his spread knees.

"You had a job?" Joey Gibson had been one of a dozen adolescents who'd, along with her younger brother Tommy, roamed the streets like a pack of jackals, looking for all the world like each one of them would either be behind bars or dead by the age of twenty. "So that's why I haven't seen you around in a while."

"Yup," he said proudly. "I was running a game over on Larimar last summer and a guy offered me a whole dollar to watch his horse for an hour. Did such a good job he hired me right on to help with his horses, permanent-like."

Kathryn's gaze moved from Joey to the white-washed stables just beyond the gate. "Mr. Sellington?"

"Mr. Hall," he clarified. "If'n that's what he wants to be called, that's what I'm gonna call him."

"Did you know who he really was?"

"Never told me, but it weren't no secret among the help. But I never woulda ratted him out. Hell -- beg pardon -- he paid us all three times the going rate, for half the work! I ain't dumb enough to chance messin' that up!"

"I'm sure you're not."

"It was that stupid Gracie." He swiped a thin, bare forearm under his nose. "Thinkin' she should have a different, uh, position than downstairs maid, if ya know what I mean." He reddened.

"I believe I do."

"Got all huffy when Mr. Hall kept turning her down, went runnin' to the papers with the real story. And now she's messed it up for all of us!" he wailed. "You don't think he'll fire all of you over Gracie's mistake, do you?"

"But he's leavin'! What'll he need with all of us when he's gone?"

"Leaving?" He couldn't leave. How could she marry him if he left?

"Yeah." Joey ripped the cap off his head and crushed it between his outsized, growing-puppy hands. "Heard the cook tell the head groom. He ain't stayin' here, now that he's been found out."

"Did you hear where he was goin'?"

"Minnesota, they said. He's got people there, they all trooped down here last Christmas. Nice people. Brought us all back beaver hats."

"Minnesota." That far away, he'd be no good to her at all. She had to get to him first, and quickly. "On the train, I suppose?"

"Naw, he figures the reporters'll be watching for him there. Gonna take the stage north first thing tomorrow." His eyes narrowed suspiciously . "Say, you ain't figurin' you might succeed where Gracie failed, are ya? I mean, you're a lot prettier and all, but I'd hate to be the one that sicced another problem on Mr. Hall."

"Of course not," she assured him, while her thoughts raced. It didn't give her much time, and it was an enormous, and maybe ridiculous, gamble any way you looked at it. But what choice did she have? It wasn't as if she had many other options. How much more did she have to lose? "But Joey? You take a quarter off Tommy anytime you want, and I promise I won't say a word."

Led by hope, chased by desperation, she raced down the street at a speed far too fast for decorum.

Perhaps it was too late to save her sister's soul.

But surely it was not too late to ransom her body.

In the dim, malodorous shadow of the Swansea Smelter, a pregnant young widow named Moira O'Neill, a toddler slung over her left hip, stepped outside her ragged tent, in a small, squalid city of equally ragged tents, to call her brood for what promised to be an inadequate dinner. Just beyond her door, she nearly stumbled across a paper-wrapped package. Too weary to be curious, she opened it without hope and stared at the thick wad of bills inside for a full minute before her brain comprehended what her eyes saw.

"Sweet Jesus," she repeated over and over, as she kissed her baby's cheeks, his nose, his precious mouth. "Sweet Jesus, we're saved!"

Six blocks away, in a bare room on the top floor of a crowded tenement building, a young man with old lungs who'd come to Denver for the air and stayed to die, wept over a pile of gleaming coins.

And, across town, on a corner where the gas streetlight hadn't worked for six months, a man lurked in the darkened doorway of an abandoned saloon and spied on the gloomy shack across the street. He watched the thin young pick-pocket who claimed the place warily approach the black-robed priest who'd taken up residence in front of the shanty an hour ago.

He continued to watch as the priest handed the boy a sack that held two pairs of pants, three new shirts, boots, and a good wool coat, and informed him that he should report to St. Peter's School Monday morning, for his tuition, room, and ample board had been paid for the next four years. And when he saw disbelief on the boy's face change to hope, and the thief who'd plucked his pocket that afternoon leap into the air, fist pumping in exultation, Daniel Sellington smiled.

He was pleased with the day's work. His only failure had been his inability to locate his... "lover." Though what he planned to do with the lying wench once he found her, he hadn't been sure. Still, not a bad day's work at all.

Thirteen thousand down, he thought.

Only forty-one million to go.

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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