For Phineas Bell, love has not only been out of reach, it has been impossible. In a world where men who love other men are anathema, he has poured his love into his work, his town, and the friends who accept him as family. But when a handsome new lodger takes over his home and his heart, breaking all his careful rules, Phin must choose between playing it safe and letting love in.
War hero Elliott Tucker is the answer to Cold Springs’s prayers for a sheriff worth his salt. But with every single woman in town throwing themselves at him, Elliott has eyes for only one person: Phin. The sparks are hot between then, but in spite of Elliott’s best efforts, Phin’s heart proves the toughest nut to crack. A love that starts with fire threatens to burn them both…
… until a shocking abduction throws Phin and Elliott together on the trail of ruthless kidnappers. Will their efforts to save a child wrench them apart or will it prove that at last they’ve found somebody to love?
Amazon – http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00K02UWIS
Amazon UK – http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00K02UWIS
Smashwords – https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/430521
In the meantime, here’s a taste….
One would not expect to find a four year-old girl at a bank, but Eloise West had had a desk at Phineas Bell’s First Bank of Cold Springs almost from the day she was born.
“Are you making progress?” Phin asked Ellie from his side of the large partners desk that filled half of his office. “Do you need help?”
“No, Uncle Phin, I’m almost done,” Ellie answered with her usual seriousness.
Phin smiled from ear to ear and watched the girl sketch the finishing touches of her family portrait. She’d drawn her parents, Michael and Charlotte “Charlie” West large in the middle, her younger brother, Michael, Jr., by his father’s side and her new baby sister, Laurel, in her mother’s arms. Right beside Charlie, she had drawn him, “Uncle Phin”, and herself holding his hand. The figures were nothing more than the simplistic block drawings, but they filled him with pride nonetheless. Ellie would be an artist someday. Or perhaps a banker like him. Or even President of the United States!
He continued to smile, but shook his head. Eloise was a blessing he never would have imagined behind the walls he had built to protect himself from love’s cruelty. Who would have ever thought that a man who had been disowned by his own family when they discovered what he was, could find a place in someone else’s family? He loved his honorary niece with more devotion than most of the true uncles he had known.
“Don’t look!” she scolded when she realized he was staring at her. She covered the top of her drawing with one arm and frowned at him with stony disapproval well beyond her years.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Phin turned his head to the side, a grin wobbling on his lips.
He pretended to go back to the financial section of the newspaper he had been scanning for investment opportunities, the article warning of an increase in counterfeit money in circulation, but cheated his gaze to Eloise. She looked so much like her mother with her dark hair, blue eyes, and porcelain complexion, but she had Michael’s chin and brow and the mischievous twinkle in her eye that said she was far more clever than the average four year-old. At least he was certain she was above average intelligence. He may have been biased.
“You’re watching again,” she called him out with a huff and a pout that tugged at his heart.
“I know, but it’s because I’m eager to see your work,” he answered with a straight face. “A good supervisor monitors his employees’ work to ensure their standards of quality are up to snuff.”
“That’s what Papa says.” She put down her pencil, her pout growing sullen. “That’s why he says he has to go away all the time.”
Phin’s heart went out to her. “He has his stores to manage. Your papa is very important.”
“I don’t want him to be important, I want him to be home. So do Mama and Mike and Laurel.”
“He’s been home all week, hasn’t he?” Phin asked. “Why, I saw him giving you a ride in his automobile just yesterday.”
In fact, Michael had been tearing around town with his noisy, smelly car filled with children, laughing as loudly as they were.
“Mama says the automobile is so Papa can drive to his stores and be back in time for supper without waiting for the train,” Ellie said. “She says it is not a toy.”
Laughter escaped before Phin could stop it. “No, it is not.”
He stood and leaned over the wide desk to kiss Ellie on her forehead. The girl’s sullen expression melted into a pink-cheeked smile.
“I love you, Uncle Phin,” she said.
His heart expanded, flooding him with warmth. “I love you too, Ellie.”
“You can see my picture now.” She turned the pencil drawing to face him.
“It’s exquisite. Shall we hang it in the office?”
“Yes, we shall.”
He took the drawing and stepped around the wide desk as Eloise slipped down from the special chair he’d had made to boost her to the right height. They met at the side of the desk and crossed to the large cork board he’d had fixed on the wall opposite the bank’s vault. The cork was covered with articles, snippets from financial journals, and even a few advertisements from companies he was thinking of investing the bank’s money in. The board was an extension of his thought process, a reminder of what was important.
He found a free tack and fastened Ellie’s drawing in the center of it all.
“There,” he said. He stepped back and crossed his arms, tapping his lips with a finger. “Very good work, Miss West. I shall find it very helpful.”
“Yes,” she smiled, imitating his stance down to tapping her lips, “you shall.”
He couldn’t help himself. He laughed, leaning over to scoop her into his arms to hug her. She was almost too big to be picked up now, but he wasn’t ready to let her go. She squeezed her arms around his neck and kissed his cheek. Life didn’t get much better than that.
“Phin! Phin are you here?”
Christian Avery’s voice from the other end of the bank yanked him out of the cozy warmth of his thoughts.
“Shall we go see what Uncle Christian wants?” Eloise asked.
Phin beamed. “Yes, we shall.”
Still carrying Eloise, Phin stepped out of his office and into the bank’s main room. Once, there had been only one desk and a table in the main part of his bank. Now there were three desks and four employees buzzing between them. The tiny lobby on the other side of the single teller’s window was shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens of Cold Springs anxious to do their banking.
“Phin!” Christian Avery, the town’s former justice of the peace and newly elected mayor stood on the other side of the barred window with a frustrated scowl. “Can’t you do something about the scrum out here?”
“I can urge you to put up with it until someone comes along and opens another bank in town,” he said as he crossed the office.
“It’s the twentieth century. You’d think there would be banks on every corner now,” Christian replied.
Phin shared a teasing glance with Eloise and rolled his eyes. She followed suit. Ever since New Year’s Christian had been talking like they should be living in a Jules Verne novel.
A locked door separated the lobby from the main section of the bank. Phin managed to unlock it with Eloise still in his arms, then stood back to let Christian through.
A second man came with him. Phin had never seen him before. He was tall with broad shoulders and dark, curly hair. He carried himself with palpable confidence that shone through in his bright, dark eyes. A few of the ladies in the lobby stared at him through the open door whispering behind their hands. Yes, Phin definitely would have noticed this man.
Before Christian could introduce him, the man stepped closer to hold out his hand with a warm smile. “Elliott Tucker, at your service.”
Phin’s heart thumped against his ribs at that smile, at the glittering mischief in the man’s eyes, at the scent of sandalwood and musk. He felt the tell-tale rush of blood to places generally ignored, delicious and dangerous.
He cleared his throat and adjusted Eloise in his arms. Rein it in, Phin, he told himself. It would be a disaster to let his instincts out of the vault he’d stored them in for years.
“Phineas Bell,” he said with a squeak and freed his hand so that he could shake.
“Oh.” Mr. Tucker blinked into an expression of surprise. “I’m sorry, I was talking to the young lady.”
Phin’s jaw went slack, his rush of blood increasing and spreading heat through him.
“Elliott Tucker, ma’am,” he repeated, taking Eloise’s small hand. “And what might your name be?”
“My name is Ellie too. Eloise.” She giggled and hid her face against Phin’s shoulder, shy after the fact.
“Well then, I suppose we’ll be best of friends, won’t we?” Mr. Tucker said. He had the slightest accent of somewhere in the south, possibly Texas, but it was diffused, as though he hadn’t lived there for a while.
“Mr. Tucker, I’d like to introduce our town banker, Mr. Phineas Bell,” Christian picked up the introductions with a slight frown over the fact that they had already been made without him. “Elliott is the new sheriff,” he explained to Phin.
Phin’s brow rose. “You finally found a new sheriff?”
Christian huffed out a laugh and shook his head. “Well if you hadn’t left the town council back in March, you’d’ve known that. You’d also know that I swore if this one doesn’t work out, I’m moving to China.”
Phin grinned. “I’m sure Lily would love that.”
Elliott glance between Christian and Phin. “I take it from what I was told at the interview that you’ve had a hard time filling the position.”
“It’s not that we’ve had a hard time filling it,” Phin explained with a smirk. “There have been plenty of candidates who have offered themselves.”
“Yeah,” Christian added with a long-suffering frown. “They’ve either been crooks themselves, like Franklin Turner, or complete boobies, like Kent Porter, or lazy slobs, like this last one, Martin Hughes.”
Elliott straightened with a smile that fit right in with Phin and Christian. “Well, I can assure you, I’m neither a crook nor a booby nor a lazy slob. If you don’t believe me, you can ask Teddy Roosevelt himself.”
There was no need to ask anyone. Though his clothes were ordinary, Elliott wore them well. He’d obviously taken great care with his appearance, and with the exception of his unruly curls, he looked as put together as a judge. Those wild curls, on the other hand, begged to have fingers run through them. They looked as soft and silky as—
“Elliott comes highly recommended.”
Christian’s comment kept Phin from losing his focus. At least it would have if Sheriff Elliott Tucker hadn’t eyed him with a half-concealed grin that told Phin he’d been caught red-handed in his appreciation. The man was astute. Maybe too astute. The last thing Phin could afford was to take a shine to the new sheriff.
Mr. Banker was in the game.
“Remember Roosevelt charging up San Juan Hill with his Rough Riders two years ago?” Christian went on with his explanation as Elliott sized up Phin. There wasn’t a shred of doubt in his mind that Cold Springs’s banker shared his tastes.
“I remember.” Phin nodded. A charming blush rose up his neck and splashed on his cheeks. It was almost as darling as the little girl in his arms.
“Well, Elliott was with them,” Christian finished.
Mr. Banker blinked to surprise. “You were?”
Elliott smiled modestly and lowered his eyes, letting a swell of pride fill his chest.
“I was recruited right out of the bar at the Menger Hotel in San Antonio along with a bunch of the other boys,” he began with a sly grin, planting his hands on his hips. “Most of them were athletes or sharpshooters. Me? I was a salesman, but a damn good one at that. Teddy took one look at me and demanded I join up. I spent a mighty hot summer trudging through jungles in the heat, picking off guerillas as they shot at us, and wondering where my horse had gone.”
Behind him, through the open doorway, a pair of eavesdropping ladies cooed in appreciation. Elliott’s smile widened. The faster word spread that he was a war hero, the less likely people would be to peg him as a sissy.
“Phin knows a thing or two about getting shot at,” Christian said.
It was Elliott’s turn to be surprised. “Really?”
Phin fixed his friend with a scolding frown that contrasted with his patrician good looks, giving him the appearance of an aggravated god. It sent prickles of excitement along Elliott’s skin.
“We’ve had a few attempted robberies in the last couple of years,” Phin explained. “The fools almost never make off with anything more than a hundred dollars or so and there was only one time when a shot was fired.”
He nodded to a crack in the plaster high up on one of the walls. It was small and must have been caused by a revolver and not a rifle with any power. Elliott shrugged at it and turned back to Phin.
Once again, Mr. Banker was watching him with those steady blue eyes of his. He had all the inquisitive grace of a scholar inside a body that set Elliott’s imagination soaring. He couldn’t have custom-ordered a man more appealing.
“I can understand why you need a competent sheriff in town,” he said, letting the appreciation he would usually rein in spread across his face. “Sounds to me like you need some looking out for.”
It was a blatant flirtation, a simple little statement that could get him in far more trouble than he needed to be in. As far as Elliott was concerned, it was a test that had to be taken as soon as possible.
“Well…I…I wouldn’t say I needed looking after, exactly.”
Yes, Phin’s stammer and blush were enough to tell Elliott he’d heard the other meaning in his words.
“Of course, you do,” Christian said, proving he’d heard no more than what was on the surface. “Three attempted robberies in three years is too much to tolerate in my town. That’s why I brought Elliott over here to let him look at the place.”
“Oh.” Phin drew in a breath and adjusted his daughter against his side. “Let me show you around, then.”
“It would be my pleasure,” Elliott replied.
Phin gave him one more curious look and led them towards the open door at the back of the cramped central part of the building. Elliott followed. His eyes dropped to Mr. Banker’s lean thighs as he walked. It would have been quite a view if the man wasn’t wearing a jacket.
One sideways glance from Christian was enough to put a damper on his delicious speculation. He winked at the girl Eloise as she peeked over Phin’s shoulder at him instead. Tipping his hand to Phin was one thing, but advertising to the mayor or anyone else that he appreciated the town banker, a married man and father to boot, for more than just his business sense was likely to land him right back on the road where he’d been since Cuba.
“The vault is through here,” Phin explained as they left the crowded main room for an even more cramped back office. Half of the space was taken up by one fat desk that would have been too much in the biggest office. Phin crossed to that desk, letting his daughter stand on top. “It’s one of the most advanced vault systems west of the Mississippi,” he explained, staying by Eloise’s side and keeping a fair distance from Elliott. “That’s part of the problem, really.”
“Problem?” Elliott asked.
Phin sighed. He let his shoulders relax with the movement and a far different, less nervous man began to emerge.
“The vault attracts a good deal of business. There’s nothing like it in the area. It also attracts its fair share of crooks, con men, and speculators.”
Elliott glanced at the vault, looked up to the ceiling, and then around the room. “I can imagine.”
His gaze rested on a cork board filled with a mish-mash of newspaper clippings. In the middle was a child’s drawing of a family—a man and a woman, a two small children and a baby, and another man.
“Did you do this, Miss Eloise?” he asked. He smiled freely again and stepped closer to the drawing.
“Yes, I did.” Standing on the desk next to Phin as she was, Eloise looked to be a girl at least twice her age or more. “It’s Mama and Papa and Mike and Laurel and me and Uncle Phin.”
A sizzle of energy shot down Elliott’s spine and his heart pumped faster. He couldn’t have turned off the voltage of his smile if he’d tried.
“Uncle Phin?” he said. “And here I thought you were her father.”
Phin’s return smile was tight. “People often make that mistake.”
Elliott was willing to bet that he didn’t correct them. Being a soldier and a war hero was an outstanding way to disguise his nature, but having niece was the perfect shield to throw people off the scent.
“So you’re not married with kids yourself?” he asked to be sure.
The anxious blush worked its way back up charming Mr. Banker’s neck.
“No, he is not,” Christian answered for him in clipped tones. “He’s married to his work and dedicated to the citizens of Cold Springs. Now why don’t you come along this way and I’ll introduce you to Paul Sutcliffe over at the saloon, or as he likes to call it these days, the ‘music hall’.”
Christian stomped out of the cramped office without checking to see if Elliott would follow. Elliott arched an eyebrow at Phin.
“He hates slipping off his schedule,” Phin excused his actions, hugging Eloise to his side.
“I can see that.” He could also see, or at least guess, that Christian knew about his friend’s inclinations, and by all accounts was trying to protect him. Cold Springs was getting more interesting by the moment!
“Mr. Bell, it was a pleasure meeting you.” He held out his hand and stepped closer to Phin.
Mr. Banker cleared his throat and, by the look of things, forced himself to relax and take Elliott’s offered hand. “I’m sure the pleasure was all mine, Mr. Tucker.”
Oh, not yet it wasn’t. But it will be.
“You can call me Elliott,” he said, squeezing his hand more tenderly than he would any other man’s.
“Ah…and you can call me Phin,” Phin replied, staring at their joined hands.
Elliott held on for a few extra beats, sliding his hand away and brushing his fingertips against Phin’s palm. He met Phin’s eyes and smiled.
Just as quickly, he turned his smile to Eloise. “And you, ma’am. I’m mighty glad to have met you too.”
Eloise giggled and buried her face against Phin’s shoulder.
“Elliott!” Christian popped his head back into the office. “Are you coming or not?”
“Just saying goodbye to my new friends.”
He took a step back and nodded to Phin, letting his smile shine for one more moment before turning and following Christian out of the room.
Here he’d expected Cold Springs to be a cozy old town with an occasional burst of excitement to keep him busy. What unexpected treasures it held! He would have one hell of a good time seducing Phineas Bell, that was for sure.