A Cowboy's Temptation(7)

By: Barbara Dunlop



 “They have five hundred ninety-seven signatures. We’ve double-checked.”

 Seth reached for the printout. “They actually lied?”

 Darby was gutsier than he’d given her credit for. He found himself chuckling. After her accusing him of cheating, he couldn’t wait to toss this in her face.

 “They don’t have the numbers.” Lisa took a satisfied sip of her steaming coffee.

 “So that’s it.” Seth’s mood brightened considerably. “We’re good to go. We can implement the permits tomorrow.”

 Finally, finally, he was going to accomplish something significant in this job. The hard work, the late nights, the compromises of his family—it was all going to be worth it.

 “Not so fast,” said Lisa.

 He held his optimism in check. “Why?”

 “Mountain Railway called. Well, one of their lawyers called.”

 “Don’t tell me they’ve changed their minds.” He tried to keep the fatalistic tone from his voice.

 Seth knew the deal wasn’t nailed down until every single piece was in place, formally signed and witnessed. And the recent negative press had been worrying him. He was afraid it would scare off the railway.

 “They haven’t changed their minds. During their legal review, they found a problem in a land survey.”

 He shifted gears. Problems, he could solve. Well, most of them. At least in the long run. “What did they find?”

 “There’s a discrepancy between the survey filed on the property title, and the survey filed in the Lands Office. And, in the case of a discrepancy, the Lands Office copy trumps anything else.”

 Seth waited for the bad news.

 “Darby Carroll’s land doesn’t sit next to the proposed railroad right-of-way like we thought. The right-of-way crosses her land.”

 Frustration washed over him. “You have got to be kidding.”

 Darby owned part of the right-of-way? Was the woman his curse?

 “I wish I was.”

 “By how much?”

 “Her land goes over the right-of-way and half a mile past.”

 “Half a mile?”

 “All the way up to the cliffs.”

 “That’s ridiculous.” Seth pushed back his chair. He’d seen the maps a hundred times.

 “That’s record keeping in the 1890s.”

 Lisa seemed far calmer than Seth felt, and it occurred to him that she might have a plan.

 “Okay. Fine. If that’s what it is, that’s what it is. What’s our best path forward?”

 “We can ask her to grant an easement.”

 Seth scoffed his disbelief.

 “I admit, it’s a long shot,” Lisa allowed.

 “It’s a no shot,” he corrected. “Darby would laugh us into the next county.”

 “As mayor, you can expropriate,” Lisa offered.

 He was definitely willing to do that. After all, the woman had lied on her petition. As far as he was concerned, the gloves were off.

 “How long will it take to expropriate?”

 “If she draws it out?”

 Seth set aside his napkin and came to his feet. “Oh, I think we can count on her drawing it out.”

 The gloves were coming off on both sides, and he’d be willing to bet she’d give him a run for his money.

 “Days for sure,” said Lisa. “Weeks, probably. It depends on the judge.”

 “Do we have any control over the judge?”

 Lisa drew back, her brows shooting up. “You want to influence the judge?”

 “No.” Seth took a couple of paces across the kitchen. He hadn’t realized how that could sound. “Of course I don’t want to influence a judge. But I think it’s fair game to get it in front of the right judge.”

 “Oh. Yeah. Maybe. If we time it right.”

 “By all means, let’s time it right.” He moved back to the table, swallowing the last of his coffee, figuring he was going to need the caffeine. “Any chance we can subtly slip through an easement request without her noticing?”

 Lisa cocked her head. “You mean, hope she doesn’t read the document before she signs it?”

 “Good point. Okay, expropriation it is.”

 “The sooner we inform her, the sooner the formal process gets underway.”

 Seth picked up the petition. “I’ll inform her myself. And while I’m at it, I think I’ll ask her why she falsified a legal document.”

 He’d love it if there was a stiff penalty for having filed a bogus petition. If there was, he’d threaten to have her charged with the crime, then offer to let it go if she signed off on the easement.

 He wanted to see her unnerved when she found out she was caught, watch her squirm, watch those big, green eyes widen with—

 He stopped himself short.

 What he really wanted to do was kiss her senseless. And that wasn’t all he wanted to do to her. And his impulse had nothing whatsoever to do with any petition or railroad.

 “Boss?” Lisa interrupted.

 He shook himself. “What?”

 “You faded away there for a minute.”

 “I’m plotting my strategy.”

 “Just don’t make her mad,” Lisa warned.

 “She’s already mad,” he countered.

 And then he was thinking about kissing her again, flattening her against a wall and pressing the length of his body against hers, delving into the sweetness of her mouth, making her pant and moan with—

 Again, he pulled himself up short. “Cancel everything I have booked for today until you hear from me.”

 His number-one priority was Darby. No, that wasn’t right. His number-one priority was the railroad. Darby was an obstacle to the railroad, and he had to get her out of the way.

 * * *

 Darby was halfway up a stepladder, rolling a coat of Summer Peach on the breakfast alcove wall, when a pounding threatened to cave in her front door. She’d been keeping herself busy all morning, trying to forget about the petition.

 “Coming,” she called out, wondering why whoever it was didn’t just let themselves in. Her big foyer served as the lobby of the inn, and people were free to come and go.

 She padded down the ladder, set the paint roller in the tray, wiped her hands on a rag and started for the great room.

 The pounding came again.

 “Come in,” she called out this time, giving the furniture a wide berth in her paint-splattered clothes.

 Nobody responded, so she gingerly turned the handle, pulling the door wide, coming face-to-face with Seth.

 “Can I help you?” she asked, struggling to banish the guilt she was feeling from their petition subterfuge.

 “I sincerely hope so,” he answered, tapping a sheaf of papers against his palm.

 It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what those papers were.

 She kept her expression neutral, feigning innocence, inviting him to continue.

 “There seems to be a small problem with your paperwork.”

 “Oh?”

 “Oh?” he parroted, gaze hard and accusing.

 “What’s the problem?”

 He cocked his head. “Are you really going to play innocent?”

 “Innocent of what?”

 He moved slightly closer. “You’re a smart woman, Darby. And you know how to rise to a challenge. You don’t have to cheat to get there.”

 She recognized her own words from their coffee at the Fall Festival. Okay, now she really felt guilty.

 “Are you suggesting we miscounted?”

 His eyes glittered with triumph. “Who said anything about the number of signatures being wrong?”

 The question tripped her up, and it took her a moment to respond. “What else could it be?” she asked airily.

 “About a dozen other things.”

 She could feel her face heat. “That seemed the most likely.”

 “At least you’re a bad liar.”

 “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 “I mean, of all your many flaws, I don’t have to add consummate liar to the list.”

 “What flaws?” she asked before she could catch herself.

 Why would she care if Seth thought she had flaws?

 “You’re caught, Darby. Own up to it.”

 “We may have miscounted,” she admitted. “But that’s hardly a crime.”

 “Punishable by a ten-thousand-dollar fine and up to three months in jail.”

 It took her a second to realize he was mocking her.

 “Ha, ha.”

 He shrugged. “That’s what it ought to be.”

 “You actually think I deserve jail?”

 “It would keep you out of my hair.”

 “You just can’t stand the fact that I’m right.”

 “You’re not right.”

 She went for broke. “Then why does the idea of a petition scare you so much?”

 “Do I look remotely frightened?”

 She leaned her shoulder against the doorjamb. “If you weren’t afraid of what I could do, you’d have sent somebody else up here to complain about the signature count.”

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