Sarita entered the sitting room and cleared her throat. “Someone to see you, señora.”
“I’m not seeing callers.” Natalia held back her exasperation, keeping her tone soft. There’d been enough shouting at servants while her husband was alive. She had no intention of continuing his rude manners.
“He say not social.” The housekeeper’s dark eyes sparkled with excitement. “Very nice-looking man. Dressed in black.”
Natalia wrinkled her nose. “The padre? I had enough of him at the service. Tell him I’m indisposed.”
A quick shake of the housekeeper’s head set her starched white cap to bobbing. “Most definitely not a preacher man.”
“You said ‘nice looking’?”
“Muy handsome. Sí.”
Good old Reginald had forbidden any of the house servants from using their native language, but that was only one of the many changes she planned. She smiled. After all, it was her native language too. “I’ll see him. Show him to the front parlor.” She nodded at the housekeeper. “And since he’s muy handsome, serve us some coffee.” Maybe Natalia would do more than see him.
She waited until Sarita left the room, then walked over to an ornate gold-framed looking glass and surveyed her appearance with an arched brow. Excellent. More than good enough for the man in black.
Composing her emotions, she walked down the central hall to the front parlor, where a fire had already been laid to ward off the chill of the late October evening. She found a tall, lean man, dressed in black as the housekeeper had said, standing in front of the fireplace, his back to her. “You wish to see me? Señor—”
He turned and smiled, his dark mustache quirking to one side. His square jaw was clean-shaven, and he smelled of spicy Bay Rum, denoting a very recent visit to the barber. His dark brows shot up, his pale gray eyes glittering with obvious interest. “Fields, Jared Fields, at your service.” His voice was low and possessed a cultured tone.
Madre de Dios. Sarita was right. Muy handsome indeed. Tall, lean, clean and saddle-hardened—just what a frustrated widow needed. What could he want?
“Señor Fields, how may I help you?” His accent and manner weren’t those of a Californio or a common cowboy. Maybe he was someone who’d known her husband before he came west. If so, she didn’t trust his coming here. Not now. She had too much to lose.
“I met one of your hands today. Said you needed someone for a cattle drive.”
Disappointment stabbed through her. A vaquero after all. “Then see my foreman.” The sharp retort escaped before she could call it back. Ready to sweep from the room, she picked up her skirts but was stopped short by the sound of his voice.
“Hear me out. Your hand, a Mr. Foulkes, also mentioned you were running the ranch alone.”
She halted, glancing over her shoulder at the tall stranger. “I already have a foreman.” Dios, but he was a choice specimen of manhood. He held a black Stetson in his hands, and a half grin occupied his lean, tanned face. What did he have to be amused about?
“Madam, if you would allow me to say my piece…” His dark, raven’s wing brows elevated as he awaited her answer.
She let out a small sigh and faced her visitor. “Go ahead, then.” She took a deep breath, knowing the act would cause her breasts to jut and capture his attention. If only he would stop talking.
His gaze flickered from her face. “It wasn’t my intention to hire on as one of your hands. It comes to me that you might need my advice—financial advice, that is. I’m from St. Louis and built up a successful firm which does just that. Did, I should clarify. I sold my half of the business to my partner and came westward. On my arrival in this fair—uh, city, it came to my attention that as a new widow of substantial holdings, you might have need of such advice.”
“I see.” In spite of his elegant manners, Mr. Fields was more interested in her money and land than her body. What was it with men and money? She drew up, gathering her most imperious and fiery manner. “Mr. Fields, do I appear as if I was born last night? It comes to my mind that perhaps you are a confidence man who, rather than advise me, would take advantage of what you suppose is my ignorance.”
Her handsome visitor’s eyes widened, and his back straightened. “To the contrary, it’s obvious to me, and should be to anyone, that you are an exceptional woman of perspicacity, and as such I would advise you to telegraph my former business partner in St. Louis to check my references. Perhaps doing so would convince you of my good faith.” He nodded, but still a smirk played about his mouth.
“And perhaps I don’t require your services at all.” At least not those. “I’m quite capable of managing my late husband’s holdings.”
“Madam, your late husband’s holdings lie far beyond this ranch.”
“Is that so?” Raising her chin a notch, she took a step toward him, each of her hands clenching a fistful of silk skirts. “And how do you come by your knowledge?” Who was he really? Most assuredly an opportunist, at the very least. Possibly he was someone sent by Reginald’s family.
Not that either scenario precluded her using him for her own amusement.
“The town weekly, the La Mesa Messenger, I believe it’s called, devoted several columns to his”—her visitor paused and cleared his throat—“death and history.”
Natalia’s cheeks burned. “Yes, the weekly rag was quite generous with its coverage.” As if everyone within ten miles wasn’t already aware of the humiliating details. Gossip spread faster in La Mesa than wildfire on the prairie. And yet standing so near to such a virile and handsome man had her heart fluttering. Heat suffused her cheeks. Could he tell she was so moved by his presence?
Eager to change the subject, she walked to the settee and sat. “Where are my manners? Please be seated, Mr. Fields.” She gestured to a straight-backed oak chair.
Her visitor nodded and sat across from her.
Sarita arrived with a tray and set it on the sideboard, then withdrew. Ah, her housekeeper and friend had impeccable timing. Natalia rose and walked to the sideboard, then glanced over her shoulder at her visitor. “How do you take your coffee? Or would you prefer tea?”
“Black. Coffee is fine, Mrs. Montrose.”
“I thought as much. Most men seem to prefer it that way,” she offered with a smile. After adding sugar to her coffee, she carried both cups of the steaming, fragrant brew and handed one to her visitor. She sat and sipped. The sugar cut the bite of the strong coffee Sarita made a habit of brewing.
Natalia cradled the cup in her hands, relishing the warmth. “Why are you really here, Mr. Fields? La Mesa is a small town. Surely you could find more lucrative business opportunities farther west in, say…San Francisco. Or maybe you’re chasing gold or silver? Is that it—did you journey west for adventure or to seek your fortune?”
“It’s true I’m of a mind to see San Francisco, but I also wanted to see this wide and wonderful country of ours.”
“Yes, a good bit of it used to belong to my people…and not so very long ago.”
He nodded in her direction, a smile playing across his lips. “You’ve done very well…”
“Done very well?” Her breath caught in her throat. This tall, elegant man sitting before her had no idea what Reginald had put her through. Who was he to judge?
“You have a comfortable situation here. Land, cattle, and no doubt a good deal of money to invest.”
“Ah, back again to my money.” She tamped down her irritation and averted her gaze shyly. “And here I hoped your interest might be more…personal.”
His brows shot up, but his gray gaze grew warm, and one corner of his mouth twisted upward in a grin. “Alas, I would never presume, as I am only too cognizant of your recent loss.”
Presume indeed? His very tone mocked her, even as his words were faultlessly respectful.