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The waiter arrived with yet more food, this time a baked salmon with dill sauce. Emmett pretended to attend to his plate while his thoughts churned. Elizabeth Sloane thoroughly confused him. She should be uncomfortable dining with him, especially at such a high profile location. At the very least, he’d expected her to take stock of the room in an effort to anticipate who would likely spread gossip tomorrow. But she hadn’t assessed their fellow diners once that he’d seen. Instead, she’d stared at his lips and peppered him with questions on his past. What the hell was happening here?

He never misjudged people. The ability to read others, to know what they were thinking, had made him a millionaire many, many times over. He knew what investors needed to hear in order to hand over their money. What workers needed to hear to avoid labor strikes. So why couldn’t he figure out one blue-blooded princess?

He searched for an impersonal topic. “Would you care to discuss your progress on our wager? I’m curious as to how you’re doing after a few days.”

“I haven’t actually invested your money yet. I have been working on a plan.”

“Stocks take time to mature, so that must mean you’re hoping to capitalize on a one-day swing.” He whistled. “You are either very confident or very foolish.”

“Time will tell.” She threw him an enigmatic smile and picked up a bite of salmon. He watched, mesmerized, as she slipped it in her mouth, her pink tongue emerging to clean the creamy sauce from the corner of her lips. His groin became heavy, his trousers growing tight. Jesus Mary and Joseph. Did she have any idea the eroticism of such a gesture?

“What’s the most amount of money you’ve made on the Exchange in one day?” she asked, thankfully distracting him.

“Almost five hundred thousand. But that was in the panic of ’73.”

Her eyes grew wide. “That’s impressive. You must know quite a bit about stocks.”

“I do.”

She studied him thoughtfully, intensely, as if he were a breed of animal she’d never encountered before. An oddity in Barnum’s old museum. He fought the urge to shift in his seat, refusing to give any hint he might feel uncomfortable.

“What was the injury?”

Emmett felt himself frown. “Pardon?”

“The injury in the mill, the one that prompted your settlement. What was it?”

“So curious,” he murmured. “Are you certain you aren’t aspiring to be another Nellie Bly?”

She gave him a chagrined smile. “I suppose that’s a polite way of telling me it’s none of my business.”

Better she find out now, to erase any misconceptions she had about him. He propped his elbows on the chair rest, steepled his fingers. “I was burned. The chains holding a steel pipe overhead broke because the pipe hadn’t been given time to properly cool. When it fell, the pipe landed on my back.”

Her eyes rounded, filled with sympathy. Before she could say anything, he leaned in. “You see, I was rushing the other men. My shift was nearly over and there was a brothel less than a mile from the mill. I was eager to get back to the girl I’d had a few nights before. So I convinced the other men that the chains would hold, to hurry up and move the pipe. And when the chains broke, two men died.”

She stiffened, the sympathy in her expression a memory, yet he had no intention of stopping. He lifted his flute and swirled the contents. “The union, assuming the company’s equipment to blame, fought to get me a small settlement. I took that money. I took it and never said a word about how the accident came to be, that it was my fault, because I wanted out of that steel mill more than I wanted my next breath.”

He could still feel it sometimes, the sweat. Woke up at night drenched in it. No, he had absolutely no regrets about getting out of the mill—or the things he’d done since.

After downing the rest of his champagne, he placed his glass on the table with a thump. “Do not try and make me into something I’m not, Miss Sloane.”

Her throat worked before she croaked, “And what would that be, Mr. Cavanaugh? What exactly am I making you out to be?”

He leaned in and held her startled gaze. “Nice.”

© Joanna Shupe

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