One man faces an unusual dilemma when he finds himself the only able-bodied, red-blooded man in a town full of lonely women.

Avon · isbn: 0-380-80496-4


The idea for The Last Man In Town was just too good to pass up. Usually I stumble around for months, sifting through bits and pieces of ideas, but this one fell whole right into my hands at the Historical Society Bookstore when I picked up a work called THE GOLD RUSH WIDOWS OF LITTLE FALLS. It's about a small boom town in Minnesota that had everything go wrong -- floods (plural!), grasshoppers, bank failures - at the same time gold was discovered in Colorado. A good portion of the town's men, desperate for money, headed west, leaving their families behind. It was a fascinating, very scholarly book about how the women were changed by the experience, becoming much less dependent upon (and accepting of!) their husbands' every command, banding together to support each other, and how those experiences nurtured the beginnings of the women's movement.

And I thought... but what if every man left except one? One really hunky one, surrounded by a whole town of lonely women, who figures life just doesn't get any better than this? Until about six months later, when he hasn't had one moment's peace the entire time. And so he asks his best platonic female "friend" for help, and things really start getting out of hand.

--Susan


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1860

Late summer held the town of Maple Falls in a sweltering grip. Night air hung heavy and damp, ripe with the scent of hot earth and river water. It was the kind of night that beat thick and low in a man's blood, making him dream of rumpled sheets and sultry women, of flesh going slick beneath the stroke of his hand.

Lucas Garrett flopped onto his bed, blissfully, gratefully alone.

He gave a relieved groan, sprawling over the full width of his specially made, extra-wide mattress.

Such luxury! No one to prod him awake just as he drifted off to a well-earned sleep. No soft voice to politely request a blanket when the night was clearly too damn hot for it. No knee, however shapely, to suddenly be drawn up a little too close to areas he'd rather be protected from stray extremities. No reason to wake up spitting out the hank of silky hair that had ended up in his unsuspecting mouth.

Just for a moment, he wondered if his sharp relief meant he was getting old. Surely not; he was only twenty-eight. Even Lucas Garrett needed some time to himself, an occasional night off. Heck, he loved women; everyone knew it. After a night or two alone, he'd undoubtedly be back in the saddle with his usual vigor.

He frowned when the prospect didn't provoke a single twinge of anticipation.

Maybe three nights.

Lovely, solitary sleep was just drifting over him when a brisk knock rattled his door on its hinges.

Husband! Father! was his automatic, instinctive response, bringing him up sharply until he remembered. There weren't any husbands and fathers in Maple Falls, not anymore, at least none worth worrying about. He started to relax.

But the bright, cheerful "Lucas?" that followed the knock had him wondering if an enraged father wouldn't be preferable after all. "Lucas? It's the third Thursday of the month. Wake up and let me in, darling."

Damn. Flora Fergus, whose anger at her absent husband translated into luscious -- and extremely exhausting -- enthusiasm. He hadn't actually forgotten that Flora claimed alternate Thursdays, but he'd tried to drop enough subtle hints when she visited his store yesterday afternoon to make sure she'd skip their usual rendezvous tonight.

Unfortunately, Flora had never been a terribly subtle woman.

He briefly considered letting her in and just as quickly dismissed the thought. He could try to explain to her that he just wasn't interested, not tonight. But knowing Flora Fergus -- and he did know her, intimately well -- she'd promptly burst into noisy tears. If there was one thing in the entire world that terrified Lucas Garrett, it was a weeping woman. He'd have her in his arms to comfort her before the first tear rolled down her lovely plump cheek. And then he'd never get any sleep.

"Luuuu-cas," she called, cajoling and seductive. The doorknob jiggled loudly.

Lucas rolled over and pulled a limp pillow over his head, trying to blot out Flora's voice, telling himself there was absolutely no reason to feel to guilty or obligated or any other damn thing.

A feather quill poked through the slack casing and scratched his cheek. The pillow effectively cut off his air, wrapping him in suffocating heat. Unfortunately, it didn't do nearly as good a job at muffling sound.

Hell! He yanked the pillow away, sat up, and groped around on the floor beside his bed. For once, without a woman there to insist on showing off her feminine skills by picking up after him, he'd been able to leave his clothes conveniently nearby.

He hopped into his pants and tugged on a shirt. Only one doorway led to his rooms over the store, at the top of the staircase tacked to the back of the building. Flora blocked that escape route, but these were desperate times. He tiptoed through the sparsely furnished parlor and poked his head through the front window, left wide open in the vain hope of catching a humid breeze from the river.

A big, blurry moon sweated yellow light over the town, revealing the broad, empty street below. He hesitated only long enough to hear the falling tones of Flora's disappointed sob. Lucas swung his leg over the windowsill and dropped the few feet onto the porch roof.

The corrugated iron bowed beneath him, a tell-tale metal twang ringing into the night. He stilled, certain he'd been given away, but from the back of the store drifted the sound of Flora's wail, now steadily theatrical. Thank God the other businesses nearby were empty; she'd have raised a crowd in no time.

Lucas bumped slowly over the heated metal and lowered himself over the edge of the roof. He swung there, waiting for his momentum to slow, and wondered how he'd ever explain this if someone came across him right then. The truth -- that he was fleeing from what every healthy young man in America dreamed of finding, a near-unlimited supply of willing, attractive, and downright eager women -- sounded preposterous even to him.

He let go, bending his knees as he hit the ground to take the force of the fall. A sharp stone bit into the side of his foot and for a instant he regretted not taking the time to yank on a pair of boots. But the lock on his door was somewhat less than sturdy, and Flora definitely was not.

Jamming his hands into his pockets, Lucas automatically turned north, parallel to the river, and headed for sanctuary.

Wide, straight streets led past the sturdy buildings of a town built in a wild burst of giddy, boom-town optimism. But now abandoned businesses blinked hollowly behind broken windows and doors badly in need of fresh paint. The sagging porch tacked onto what had once been Boswell's Emporium, the fading gilded letters on the cracked office window of The Maple Falls Frontiersman, and the fallen-down sign that used to proudly announce Tuttle's Boardinghouse all clearly told of forsaken hopes, shattered dreams, and a failing town.

But the depression that had emptied much of the town and drastically reduced Lucas's business had, in the process, also eliminated nearly all of his competition. He had every expectation that, once the irresistible lure of quick riches and big scores faded, the town would turn to the slower, less exciting, and infinitely more reliable enterprises of logging and farming. And he'd be right here, ready to profit, even if his contract with the Maple Falls Manufacturing Company hadn't ensured he'd stay.

Not to mention that when he'd had enough of quiet solitude, as he undoubtedly soon would, he'd once again relish being surrounded by an entire town of charming and delicious women who could scarcely wait to be led astray. Yes, he was clearly a man who had everything, he reminded himself firmly, made all the more delightful since he'd been the only man in the area who'd had enough sense to realize it. This oddity of mood that made it seem as much a burden as a pleasure would surely burn off tomorrow as easily as a remnant of morning fog.

Moonlight sluiced off the placid, glassy surface of the Mississippi. A shadowy tumble of useless rubble hugged both shorelines, all that remained of what had once been a strong, well-built damn. Across the broad width of the river, he could just make out the blackened, gaping hole where the back corner of the sawmill had been ripped away as easily a toy house twisted and broken by a frustrated young boy. Hard to believe that the water that looked so sluggish now carried enough force to do such damage.

He turned a corner, away from the fickle river. Up ahead, a light burned steadily in Louisa Rockwell's small cottage. Kept lit to guide her father home, he supposed. Obadiah was no doubt rolling on his pins again, slumped somewhere between home and the entrance to the bar of the Great Northern Hotel, save Lucas's own the only other surviving commercial establishment in Maple Falls.

On another night, he would have gone in search of Obadiah and lugged him home. He'd done it a dozen times before. But then there would be Louisa's generous, and undoubtedly physical, "thank you" to deal with, to accept and honor or to try and deny so gently she'd feel even more flattered by his uncharacteristic refusal. He wasn't inclined to do either.

He sighed deeply. The endless obligations . . . no, the expectations, wearied him. Even more so, the continuous gratitude shown him, the necessity of living up to what was anticipated of him, and the responsibility of giving fair and unselfish return for the favors given so freely to him.

Something simply had to be done. He was only one man!

Around one more corner, and there was his mother's place. Small and simple, decidedly unprepossessing, it could not have been more different than the graceful brick home they'd occupied in Illinois. The house huddled demurely under the sheltering arms of the great white oak that Lydia Garrett had taken pains to save when she'd had the place built.

Lamplight glinted in one window, speckling delicate patterns on the ground where it fell through a swath of lace curtain. Lydia was still awake, as he'd known she would be. But he never considered stopping. He'd made that mistake only once as a child, going to his mother's room late at night for comfort after a particularly gruesome dream, and he'd learned things about his mother that no nine-year-old should even know existed.

He passed the carefully nurtured hedge of young lilacs and turned, slipping along the edge of the bushes and around the side of the next house. Rows of flowers and neatly clipped grass, their scents blooming strong and vibrant as perfume in the heat, bordered the proud, white house. All the windows were dark, but Lucas knew exactly which one he wanted.

First floor, rear corner, overlooking the herb garden. Lucas swung lightly over the sill, brushing aside a filmy, cream-colored curtain panel, and quietly entered the room.

His eyes had already adjusted to the night, and he picked out the familiar furnishings, shadowy forms lit by a thin gauze of moonlight.

An oak dresser sat against a nearby wall. He indulged himself, running a hand over the glassy-smooth finish, tracing the frilled edge of a hand-tatted dresser scarf. He lifted a cut glass bottle, toyed with the gleaming silver of a hand mirror. Familiar, all of it, and yet it still caught him, the essential female mystery. Useless frippery and silly confections, the kind of thing no man would ever bother with. But they always intrigued him, in the way they said woman, hinting at things he could explore for a lifetime and never fully understand.

He walked over to the bed. She was fast asleep, of course, and he took a moment to admire the faint gloss of light on clean hair, the pearly sheen of pale, fine skin against a crisp white pillowcase. Even in the heat, she was fully covered, the lacy edge of a sheet tucked high across her chest and turned precisely square over the crazy quilt he knew she'd stitched herself.

Even the air smelled of her, a little spice, a hint of flowers, a lot of good clean soap. He shifted, uncomfortably aware that, though his favorite hobby had long been appreciating women and all their unfathomable, secret, and utterly erotic ways, he'd never focused so exactly on this one.

Just one more sign of how truly addled he was tonight, and more evidence of why he must get his life back in order as quickly as possible. If he kept looking down at her in the moonlight, he might do something truly insane.

"Pris," he whispered. "Wake up, Pris."

She didn't move, but he heard her quick intake of breath, saw the gleam of her irises when her eyes fluttered open.

"I've got to talk to you," he went on.

"Oh," she said, a distinct note of deflation in her voice, as if she'd just unwrapped an exceptionally promising looking package to find nothing more than a plain pair of cotton stockings, "it' s just you."

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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