New York, 1892
The darkness had become their friend. The deep purple of the late summer nights hid them in its shadows and muffled the rustle of her skirts, the scrape of his shoes on paving stones, and the pounding of their earnest hearts.
She found him in the sympathetic shadows of the arbor at the rear of the garden, waiting among lush cascades of gloriously overripe roses.
"Prissy . . . here!"
She located him, then paused to adore him with her eyes. Tall, fair, and undeniably handsome, he was everything a girl's heart could desire.
"I was afraid you wouldn't be able to come," he said in a tense rush, holding out his hands to draw her close.
"Nothing could have kept me from coming to you," she said, sinking against his shirtfront and sighing as his arms folded around her. "Even if she had locked me up, I still would have found a way."
"Locked you up?" Jeffrey gasped and pulled her tighter against him. "I wouldn't put it past her, the old witch. She's nothing short of a tyrant--ordering you about--forbidding us to--"
She reached up to stop his words with her fingertips. "Let's not waste precious time on my poor, wretched aunt. What could she possibly know of love? She's so old and lonely and miserable--she must be thirty years old. . . ."
"At least," he muttered.
She ran her hand reverently across his cheek.
"You are my whole world, Jeffrey."
"You are my moon and my stars, Prissy." He drew a deep breath to counter the constriction in his chest. She was so lovely. He felt a familiar ache begin deep in his loins and groaned softly. "Oh, if only we could marry, sweetness, and be together." He pulled her head against his shirt and closed his eyes. "Forever and ever."
"And ever," she echoed wistfully, closing her eyes as well.
"I would be able to touch your--hands--whenever I please, and hold you like this . . ." His more explicit longings were buried in a passionate kiss pressed on her cool, delicate fingers. "We're like Romeo and Juliet. Forbidden to love."
"And my parents, who were forbidden to love, too. They found a way." She lifted her head, her eyes shining. "We'll find a way, too, Jeffrey."
"Your parents?" Jeffrey set her back just enough to see her face clearly.
"My grandparents forbade their love, so they eloped and fled to Italy." Her voice grew warm and impassioned. "My mother said that they lived as free as gypsies at first . . . on nothing but wine and love." She pushed back farther in his arms and her eyes lighted. "We could do that."
"What? Live on wine and love?"
"No. Elope, like my mother and father."
"Elope?" For a brief moment the possibility was tantalizing. Then a draft of reality blew through his heated senses. "And flee the country?"
"No, we wouldn't have to do that." Her face glowed as she envisioned it. "We could . . . stay with your family until we get a house of our own."
"With my mother?" He envisioned it and winced in spite of himself. "Mother would never countenance such a thing. I mean, she's always planned a huge, society wedding for me . . . it would break her heart if . . . no, no, it can't be an elopement."
"You wouldn't elope with me?" she asked, surprised by his reluctance.
"There's the future to think about." A trace of anxiety crept into his voice. "Elopements are terrible scandals. We have to think of something else."
"But what?" She made fists around handfuls of his sleeves. "We'll grow as old and decrepit as Aunt Beatrice if we wait for her to change her mind." Then she paused, caught by another idea. "Unless we change it for her."
"Change a Von Furstenberg's mind?" He snorted. "We'd have better luck jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge and trying to fly. She despises me, Prissy . . . she acts as if I'm still in short pants. When I asked my father to plead our case with her, she wouldn't even see him. Now he's afraid that if he pushes the matter . . ."
There was no need to describe his father's fears. They both knew that her aunt and guardian, Beatrice Von Furstenberg, could wield her money and power like a sword and mace.
"If she only knew you as I do . . . knew how generous and honorable and brilliant you are." She loosened her grip on his sleeves to caress the arms inside them and lowered her voice. "How manly and brave you can be." She studied his face in the dimness and felt a surge of defiant passion. "She must be made to see it. Jeffrey, we must show her that you are a man to be reckoned with . . . that despite your youth, you are a force in the world of men."
"And how do you propose that we do that?"
She scowled, thinking, and the logic became inescapable. "I suppose . . . she would have to see you doing something daring or courageous."
"Courageous? You mean like . . . fighting a duel or something? Saving you from a burning building? Fending off a band of robbers?"
"Dueling is against the law--not to mention deadly. It takes hook and ladder companies to battle fires. And robbers run in packs and carry guns."
"Well, if a building were on fire, you would rescue me, wouldn't you?"
He blinked. "O-Of course."
"Then that's what you have to do, 'rescue' me." Then her eyes flew wide with another burst of inspiration. "No! Even better--rescue her!"
"Rescue her?" He was truly horrified. "What would I rescue her from?"
"Jeffrey." She pulled away and crossed her arms.
"Be reasonable, Prissy. Where is your aunt likely to get caught in a burning building or be held up by a gang of thieves?"
"Well, I don't know, but . . ." Mounting frustration caused her to blurt out: "I bet it could be arranged."
His hands and his jaw both dropped. "Prissy! You want to arrange for your aunt to be set upon by some thieves and cutthroats . . . so I can rescue her?"
Phrased so bluntly, the idea set Priscilla back for a moment.
"It does sound a little crazy." Then her inherited determination asserted itself. "But think about it, Jeffrey. If you rescued her from danger, she would owe you a debt. And you know how fanatical she is about debts--paying them as well as collecting them. She would have to let us see each other. And once we've begun to court, I'm sure we could convince her to let us marry."
"But thieves, Prissy . . ."
Her gaze again swept that mental tableau and her fertile mind began to work again.
Excerpted from Sweet Talking Man by Betina Krahn. Copyright © 2000 by Betina Krahn. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.