(If you aren’t caught up in the series, don’t blame me if you accidentally read a spoiler.)
There are kisses, and then there are kisses, and each of them means something quite specific, unless, of course, the kisser is a man. It’s my experience that a man kisses for only one reason, to lure a woman into his arms where she becomes utterly vulnerable.
When a woman kisses, it can be anything from a question to a rebuke, so it’s hard to blame a man for wanting to be the kisser instead of the kissee. He simply doesn’t have the vocabulary for the other way ‘round.
These were the thoughts that kept me company as I rode my mare, Blue, along the dusty road, breathing the scent of fresh pine and admiring the early morning summer sunshine. I gave Blue a couple of happy pats on the neck as we walked along the tree line.
“You always understand my kisses, don’t you, Blue-girl?”
She nodded and blew a raspberry.
We headed around a little ridge that separated the only two hotels on the top of our mountain range. Idyllwild was just a dot on the California map, consisting of my tiny hotel, a post office, a blacksmith shop, and a deputy’s office on my side of the ridge, and the Idyllwild Inn on the other.
Mr. Walter Lindley owned the Inn and with visions of the future shining in his eyes, he’d filled Foster’s Meadow with his sprawling resort, put a saloon up next to the road, built pretty little gingerbread-decorated cottages in the back, and rounded his place off nicely with an extensive tent area for campers.
As we rounded the last bend and I turned Blue in at Lindley’s resort, I decided once again that, all things considered, I had the better arrangement between the two of us. My hotel was a converted home that had five rooms up top for guests. Cozy, quiet, and friendly, it didn’t offer the razzle dazzle that Lindley loved, but provided a clean bed and good food for the travelers who arrived via the stagecoach.
The city of Hemet was twenty miles southwest from my hotel, and the city of Banning was twenty miles northwest from Lindley’s. This single road connected us all. I looked over my shoulder as we left it behind and sighed.
If I rode further on to John Wyman’s solitary cabin, I could ask him myself about his kiss and its implications. It irritated me beyond words that he’d kissed me out of nowhere and then carried on as though it hadn’t happened. No explanation. Men were ridiculous. For now, it satisfied me to investigate a different kiss. One that Lindley had given Molly, his former maid.
“Loveda!” The cry came from the wide veranda that encompassed the resort building. A girl with bright hazel eyes started down the front stairs to meet me, and I laughed at both her enthusiasm and the hobble skirt she was attempting to negotiate the steps in.
Two bassett hounds acknowledged my arrival with half-hearted bays. They remained lounging on the veranda, thumping their tails on the wooden deck, and by this Juno and Biscuit recognized me as family.
“Molly, stop!” I called. “You’ll just have to go up again!”
She waited obediently half way down while I dismounted and handed Blue’s reins to a stable boy. He gave me a nod in welcome and led Blue away, and I dashed up the stairs and took her arm in mine. Together, we made it back up the steps.
“I’m so glad to see you,” Molly said as we each took a seat in rocking chairs. The view from the veranda was gorgeous no matter which direction you faced, but this one was my favorite by far. Tahquitz Peak rose in morning glory and presided over the mountain like the legendary Cahuilla chief it was named for. I admired its craggy face while Molly launched into her morning news.
“Mr. Lindley’s been such a gentleman, Loveda, arranged things just so. I’m still sharing the cottage with Charlotte—the receptionist, you know—we get on so well it didn’t make sense to shift. But Charlotte gets up every morning before dawn to arrange the resort schedules and it was dull very quickly, so Lindley agreed I could manage the new maids.”
“My replacements. How strange. We’ve hired on three and I’ve been showing them the ropes, you know, bringing things together. We’ll have to work well as a team before the big show this weekend.” She took a flustered breath. “I mean, they will. It’s odd to not be officially part of the staff anymore.”
Molly’s cheeks were flushed, and her smile showed an endearing little gap between her front teeth. Her pretty clothes were becoming and a big change from the normal maid’s uniform of drab gray dresses and white starched aprons, but Molly wore them well.
I ran a hand over my full, deep green riding skirt. I was five foot four inches and wore sensible day dresses that befit a sensible hotel proprietor. Hobble skirts were only an option for taller ladies who had no use for staircases. Or really, anything at all.
“I know how you feel,” I said. “When I went from being a governess in Boston to the wife of a wealthy El Paso rancher, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Of course,” I amended, “I went as quickly from a wife to a widow to a hotel owner.” I rocked in my chair a little. “Change is something you have to get comfortable with, or you will never know what you’ve missed.”
“I would hate to miss Mr. Lindley,” Molly said with a sigh.
“There you have it,” I said. “You adapt and find out what the future has in store for you.” I took up my pocket watch and checked the time. “Speaking of your beau, he told me to be here at nine precisely. Where is he?”
“We breakfasted at seven, and I haven’t seen him since. And don’t call him my beau.”
“I will. It adds color to your face and a smile, too. Has he kissed you since he fired you?”
“What a blunt question. You make it sound so silly. No. He takes my hand and barely passes his face over it.”
“And this displeases you?”
“He can’t very well take liberties with a lady.”
“You would rather stay the maid and be kissed? I don’t think so. There are enough stigmas attached to the question of class and sex.”
“Loveda!” She looked left and right, to see if anyone had overheard.
“I mean women’s rights, Molly. It’s 1912. If women can have the vote, women can make independent decisions on whether or not they will kiss a man and when. Why does the man decide these things?”
“Since when are you a suffragette?”
“I’m not. But the lines aren’t drawn very fairly on some things, in my opinion.” I sighed. “And the idea of an employer taking advantage of an employee is insufferable. What if a lady could kiss a man and still be a lady?”
“You see? It never hurts the man, the other way around. We are all caught between the old and the new. You two will have to find a way to navigate it.”
Molly leaned closer and lowered her voice. “I do think Mr. Lindley arranged this event for my personal enjoyment. All I did was mention—mention, mind you—that I loved Mozart and he sends Charlotte on a wild goose chase, looking for an opera singer to come up and perform.”
Her smile was part embarrassed and part pleased. “He already insisted I have access to the piano in the ballroom at any hour and told me to order up all the records I wished for our collection.”
“Molly, I didn’t realize you were musically inclined. I’m more interested in how the piano is put together and tuned. I’ve never tried playing one.”
“I haven’t played since I was a child,” she admitted, “and I’m afraid to play in front of anyone, especially Mr. Lindley, but it was sweet of him to offer. Will you come to the show on Sunday? I’ll make sure you get a front-row seat.”
“I wouldn’t miss it. But the front row must be for Karine. The woman nearly scorched a meal when she found out André Bernardi was coming up to sing her favorite songs. She’s been going on about opera ever since.”
“Then Mr. Lindley’s done a good thing. Even if it’s for your cook.” Molly sounded pleased. “And is there anyone in particular you’d like me to seat next to you? Besides Karine?” She cut her eyes at me but rocked in her chair with an air of indifference. “I’d love to see you in your silks.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.” I kept my eyes on Tahquitz.
“You’re fairly surrounded by single men, Loveda. Take some of your own medicine, and tell me which one you’d prefer…dressing up for.”
“That isn’t fair. A woman should be able to wear what she pleases and when without everyone ascribing an agenda to it.”
“So, is there something to the rumor or not?” Molly’s chair stopped, and she addressed me frankly. “You dressed like an angel and invited John Wyman to supper. Borrowed our crystal and china for it. Sounds like an agenda, Loveda.”
“Maybe I miss pretty things sometimes.” I fidgeted with my riding gloves.
“Maybe you prefer John Wyman.”
“That’s nonsense.” I looked at my watch again. “Didn’t it occur to you that Lindley doesn’t want you to miss pretty things, either? That he wants you to be content up here in this remote place? Now, there’s a man with an agenda. I won’t make a fuss again, if people are going to talk about me like that.”
No one knew about John’s kiss, and I was going to keep it that way. It wasn’t the first time it had occurred to me that perhaps John thought I’d had an agenda that night, and it chafed. I had in no way provoked him. It wasn’t my fault, and it didn’t need to be repeated.
I was saved from outright quarreling with Molly by the appearance of Lindley, riding up and looking very pleased with himself. He smiled and lifted his little goatee higher when he noticed us sitting on the veranda. Lindley kept his tidy, pressed appearance, even on horseback, even when his temper flared, his every oiled hair in place. I envied him his composure and had only seen him without it when confronted with Molly.
Which seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
“Lindley’s Summer Musical Extravaganza!” he said, lifting the bowler hat from his head and placing it over his heart with reverence. “Presenting the triumphant tenor, the famous operatic voice, direct from Los Angeles, ladies and gentlemen, André Bernardi!”
Molly and I rose from our chairs and clapped on cue, as Lindley beamed up at us.
“I’ve almost perfected my speech,” he said, dismounting. “Nothing like a ride to clear your head.” He nodded to the stable boy who materialized to collect his horse. Lindley came up the steps and gave my offered hand a hearty shake. He had been running this property for many years, and I was new to the hotel business. Lindley had taken me under his wing as a business partner of sorts and was as interested in my success as his own.
“Lindley, thank you so much for your help,” I said, as we shook hands. “I’ll repay your kindness one day.”
He lingered over my hand for a minute and turned his eyes to Molly. “I believe you’ve paid in full, Miss Brown.”
He took up Molly’s hand and bent over it briefly, releasing it much sooner than Molly might have wished.
“How are you ladies on this fine morning?” he asked. Then, he looked out across the meadow and added, “We’re about to have company.”
“I would guess so,” ventured Molly. “We’ve sold over eighty tickets.”
We followed Lindley’s gaze and watched a horseman coming our way.
“He didn’t come from the road?” I asked.
“I was just out there checking the cabins,” Lindley said with some curiosity. “I didn’t see him.”
The lone rider approached the veranda steps and halted his horse at the bottom of them. He swept the Panama from his head, revealing long black waving hair tied back loosely at his neck. I could see his bright black eyes set in a swarthy complexion taking in the details of everything around us, but the easy grin beneath his heavy mustache withheld his opinions.
“How do you do?” the man said. “Am I correct in thinking this is a hotel with rooms for hire?”
“You are,” Lindley said, stepping forward. “Do you have a reservation for the weekend gala?”
The man blinked once. “Gala? I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, sir.”
“We are sold out of rooms, I’m afraid, for a Sunday event,” Lindley said. “It’s quite a production. Miss Brown has a hotel further down the road.” He looked over his shoulder at me, and I nodded. “A quiet spot, but close enough to attend the gala if you wish.”
“I have no desire to be thrust among crowds. In fact, thank you for letting me know. I came up with the explicit goal of peace and solitude.” He swept his eyes over the veranda and stopped to stare at me. “The beauty of the mountain called to me.”
His eyes were fascinating.
“Miss Brown,” Lindley said, returning to our chairs, “my apologies. Shall we attend our business later? I have to oversee the rearrangement of the stables and convince my chef that cursing in French is not going to help with his pantry navigations. I confess, I’m swamped.”
“I understand completely,” I said, “and I’m happy to hear it. Don’t worry about my things until after this weekend is over.” The stable boy who had appeared next to the veranda looked from the stranger to me and decided correctly to bring my horse around.
“I’m Loveda Brown,” I called to the man on his horse. “I’ll show you the way myself.”
“Morgan Bell. At your service,” the man said, and replaced his hat. I watched his gloved fingers adjust it and return to gather the reins in one flowing, fluid movement. In addition to the usual working tack on his horse, he had a large, narrow box over the saddlebags behind him. Before I could catch myself, he noticed my stare and said, “Painter. I work in oils and chalks.”
To my annoyance, I blushed and covered my embarrassment with a smile.
I turned toward Molly. She joined me briefly as Lindley walked to the front doors of the hotel and held the handle, waiting for her.
“He’s devastating,” whispered Molly at my elbow. “I’ll keep that seat open next to you.”
“Poppycock.” I reached up and smoothed my brunette curls beneath my hatband. “Find something useful to do.”
“I haven’t any idea how to be a lady of leisure. What does one do without employment?”
I shrugged. “The first thing I did was learn how to shoot rattlesnakes at ten paces.”
She put a gloved hand over her mouth, and I started down the steps.
“You might find something more useful, I suppose. But it came in handy at the time.”