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Dressed in her breeches and shirt, Evangeline Hallowell paced back and forth across the Aubusson rug in the spacious study of her home. At irregular intervals, she paused to glance anxiously toward the hallway, then at the window. Muttering a curse, she wheeled around to wear another rut in the imported carpet.
Her younger sister, Lydia, had left earlier that afternoon and she hadn't said where she was going or when she'd be back. Now it was dark and Evangeline was worried. She had the uneasy feeling that something was amiss.
A loud wail erupted near the front door. The sound echoed through the tiled foyer and bounced off the walls. Evangeline whirled around to race to the study door.
She stared incredulously at Lydia's disheveled coiffure, tear-stained eyes and puffy face. "Dear God, what happened to you?"
Dirt soiled Lydia's expensive pink gown. The pristine lacethat was now a dingy shade of brownwas snagged with leaves and twigs and drooped noticeably over the torn ruffles.
"Oh, Eva, I'm such a fool!" Lydia burst out as she flung herself into Eva's arms.
The sobs and howls commenced in earnestthe outpouring of emotion that had apparently sustained Lydia until she reached the safe haven of their lavish mansion. She clung to Eva as if she was a lifeline and she proceeded to bawl her head off.
Eva let her sister vent her anguish for several minutes before guiding her to the sofa that sat perpendicular to the bookshelves that stretched from floor to ceiling of the north wall. Although Lydia refused to release her handand nearly squeezed off the blood flow to her fingersEva didn't complain. She hadspent years nursing Lydia through one melodramatic, emotional ordeal after another because she had assumed the role of mother, father and older sister.
This high drama, however, seemed to be more serious than usual for Lydia.
"You were right about him," Lydia blubbered, then dragged in a shuddering breath. "I was an imbecile to believe him."
Him, Eva presumed, was the suave, smooth-talking gentleman who had been courting Lydia and escorting her to Denver's elite social functions for the past three months.
Eva tensed as she reassessed her sister's tattered gown. "If Gordon Carter forced himself on you"
Lydia flung up a trembling hand that sported three broken fingernails. "Worse!"
Eva's dark brows elevated. "Worse than ravishing you?"
Lydia bobbed her head, sending shiny waves of auburn hair tumbling from her lopsided coiffure to cascade haphazardly over her shoulders. "He broke my heart, stole my buggy and my favorite horse and he swiped my money!" she cried in distress.
Eva went perfectly still, her mind racing back through time to reevaluate Lydia's rather peculiar behavior this past week. She had been in and out of the mansion without bothering to inform Eva or the servants when she planned to return. If Eva hadn't been preoccupied fending off a particularly persistent suitorshe might have paid more attention.
Should have paid attention, she chastised herself. It was her sworn duty to protect and care for Lydia. She had solemnly promised her father that she would, after he fell ill suddenly then died.
Lydia wiped her eyes with the back of her grimy hand, sniffled loudly then glanced toward the imported grandfather clock that graced the corner. "Gordon and I were going to elope because he said you wouldn't approve and you were jealous because you were interested in him. He said we had to be clever and discreet. He said you would be outraged if you weren't the first to wed."
"What!" Eva scrambled to control her temper then gnashed her teeth, wishing she could take several bites out of Gordon's conniving hide. "I never had any interest in that scoundrel. It was plain to me that he was insincere. He made all the right noises, in his dedicated effort to impress you and others in our social circle, but I didn't trust his intentions. The fact that he tried to pit you against me is one more reason why I dislike him."
"It worked to some extent," Lydia admitted on a ragged breath. "He suggested that I gather plenty of funds so we could elope" Her voice broke and she half collapsed on the couch. "Oh, Eva, I'm so humiliated I could die! Gordon insisted that we shouldn't bother with luggage so no one would suspect a thing. With my satchel of money we headed south to Canyon Springs to be married."
Hot fury boiled through Eva's veins as she visualized that silver-tongued, self-serving bastard luring her naive sister beneath his spell. At nineteen, Lydia hadn't learned to be wary and cautious of shysters who sought to separate her from her inheritance. She had fallen for Gordon's flattery and premeditated charm. His scheme had been to divide and conquer the Hallowell sisters so he could manipulate Lydia. Damn that lying, cheating bastard! He would be punished severely for this, she fumed.
Although Eva was silently condemning Gordon Carter to the farthest reaches of hell, she reined in her anger to listen to the rest of the infuriating tale.
"Then what happened?" she questioned intently.
Lydia rerouted the tears on her flushed cheeks, dabbed at her eyes with her dirty sleeve and finally met Eva's unblinking gaze. "Gordon stopped the buggy in the middle of nowhere and shoved me out. He claimed that he was bored with my childish prattle, and I should walk back home because marrying me was the very last thing on his list of what to do with the rest of his life "
Her voice fizzled out and humiliated wails erupted. Lydia flung herself facedown on the sofa, sprawling in emotional defeat. A few moments later, she raised her tousled head and clutched Eva's hand again, accidentally scratching her with jagged fingernails.
"I'm dreadfully sorry I listened to Gordon's lies. He kept telling me that you were spiteful, stifling and envious because I was happy and you weren't. Since you discouraged me from seeing him I thought it might be true."
Eva shook her head adamantly. "You should have known better, Lydia. I have sworn off men for good reason. I can guarantee that I will never be jealous of my own sister. I want you to be happy, but you need to realize that adventurers will always set their sights on you because you have access to a fortune. That's why we have to be so wary and selective of men."
Lydia nodded and sniffled. "I understand that now, but Gordon kept telling me that he loved me and he'd never met anyone like me. Then his sugary tone changed to disdain once he had my money, my carriage and Hodge. You know how much I adore that horse. He was my last gift from Papa."
Eva promised herself, there and then, that she would hunt down that vermin and see to it that he was poisoned, stabbed, shot and strung up by his heels. Then she would haul his sorry carcass to jail for the duration of his life.
"From now on I'm going to be just like you," Lydia said determinedly. "I'll never again trust a man with my heart or my money."
"I regret that you had to find out the hard way that our family fortune is a burden and a curse. It attracts the wrong kind of men." A faint smile pursed Eva's lips as she brushed the tendrils from Lydia's face and met her watery gaze. "For us, Lydia, all men are the wrong kind of men. They will always want what we have, not who we are on the inside. They want our prestigious connections, not our companionship. The only way I've found not to be hurt, disappointed or taken advantage of is to guard my heart carefully. You must look beneath the charming smiles and calculated flattery to determine a man's sincerity."
Lydia nodded her head. "I know you speak from experience because you were so sad three years ago and"
"Past is past and I never look back," she interrupted. "I prefer to profit from my mistakes, not repeat them."
Although Lydia insisted on talking her unpleasant experiences to death, Eva preferred to keep them buried. The man who taught her not to trust, not to expose her heart to pain, was a closed chapter of her life. If she never saw him again, that would be perfectly fine with her. Unfortunately, Felix Winslow owned a successful local jewelry shop thanks to his new wife's financial backing. He showed up often with his young bride at parties and Eva had taught herself to look through him as if he wasn't there.
When the grandfather clock chimed ten times, Eva glanced up. She tapped Lydia on the shoulder then urged her to her feet. "Why don't you go upstairs and I'll have a warm bath prepared for you. I need to go out for a while, but I'll return shortly."
Lydia levered herself upright and managed the faintest hint of a smile. "If you are off to shoot that lying scoundrel I'll send you out with my blessing, but I know he's headed toward Canyon Springs, and probably to parts unknown. Finding him will be next to impossible."
"You're right. I would like to shoot him a couple of times for hurting you," Eva insisted. "It's the only purpose the men in our lives can possibly serve. Target practice."
Lydia snickered but her expression sobered when she surveyed the irreparable damage to her expensive gown. "This was to have been my wedding dress."
"Burn it," Eva recommended. "That's what I did with the one I wore the last time I was with Felix Winslow. I imagined him in it while it burned to ashes."
Lydia shrugged, and when Lydia trudged up the staircase, Eva sailed out the front door. She jogged down the street to the Philbert estate. Roger and Sadie Philbert twin brother and sisterwere her lifelong playmates and friends. The blond-haired, blue-eyed twosome was returning from a party and they stepped down from their coach just as Eva hurried up the flagstone driveway.
"Rather late to be gadding out in men's breeches, isn't it?" Roger teased as he appraised her unconventional attire.
Eva glanced down, having forgotten that she was still wearing the garments she had donned for horseback riding, while attempting to track down her missing sister.
She shrugged carelessly in response to Roger's playful grin. "You know I've acquired the reputation of an eccentric and free spirit. Why not enjoy it?"
Sadie clasped Eva's hand to lead her to the front steps. "We attended the Jensons' stuffy dinner party. I'm sure you had a more interesting evening than we did."
Eva knew Lydia would be mortified if news of her involvement with Gordon made the gossip grapevine so she waited until she and the Philberts were behind closed doors before she asked, "I want to hire the best bounty hunter in the business, a Mr. J. D. Raven, I believe is his name. How do I go about finding him?"
"Bounty hunter?" Roger and Sadie crowed simultaneously. "Are you mad?"
"No, only vindictive," she said enigmatically.
Roger motioned for her to follow him into the office to ensure complete privacy. Then he gestured for Eva and his sister to take a seat on the brocade sofa. "What the devil is going on?"
Eva shrugged evasively. "The business I want to conduct requires the skills of a particular kind of man like Mr. Raven. He's known to be the best and that's who I want."
"If you need assistance, why not call upon the Rocky Mountain Detective Agency?" Roger recommended. "You know they are reputable."
Eva had considered it, but since local and state newspaper reporters constantly followed the detectives' cases, she feared Lydia's name might be leaked. The last thing she wanted was a public scandal. Her nineteen-year-old sister was too vulnerable and too sensitive to gossiping peers.
"I came here for information, Roger," she declared, avoiding his direct question. "So how do I contact Mr. Raven?"
"I cannot begin to imagine what you are up to, but it sounds intriguing," said Sadie, her blue eyes glinting with interest.
When Roger crossed his arms over his chest and clamped his lips together, Eva sighed impatiently. "If you won't help me then I'll try another source."
When she bounded to her feet and headed to the door, Roger grumbled under his breath. "All right, Miss Persistence, I'll tell you what you want to know. As luck would have it, J. D. Raven arrived in town earlier today," he reported. "In case you haven't heard, he's half-Cheyenne, half-white. And yes, he's said to be deadly accurate with every weapon imaginable. But he's not the kind of man our friends and colleagues associate with directly."
Eva flicked her wrist dismissively. "You know I refuse to follow the dictates of snobbish society. I associate with whomever I please. I want Mr. Raven because his success rate is legendary when it comes to tracking down men who don't want to be found."
"From what I heard at the party this evening, he showed up at Marshal Doyle's jail with two of the three fugitives he'd been tracking," Sadie declared.
"What happened to the other one?" Eva asked curiously.
"Dead and buried," Roger replied. "According to rumor, Raven doesn't place a cross on the graves, just an X so Indian deities and the Lord Almighty won't have to bother with the sinners. Plus, he plants them in the ground, facing away from the rising sun." He flicked his wrist casually. "I'm told it's some sort of Indian tradition that eternally curses evildoers."
"You are full of all sorts of helpful and interesting information," Eva praised. "Do you also know where I can find this legendary avenger of injustice?"
"You should let me handle this," Roger advised.
Eva shook her head decisively. "This is a private matter and I will take care of it myself."
His shoulders slumped and he shook his sandy blond head in defeat. "Fine, but you should go in disguise so you don't cause a stir. The London House is the place where Raven roosts when he returns from his forays."
"Thank you." Eva grasped the door latch. "I might be out of town for a few days so please check on Lydia for me."
Sadie frowned worriedly, but she said, "Of course, whatever you need. You know you can always count on us."
When she opened the door to leave, Roger burst out indignantly, "You really aren't going to tell us what this is about?"
"No, I'm sorry but I can't right now. I'll explain later," she promised on her way out the door.
J. D. Raven collapsed on his bed, exhausted. He grabbed the bottle of whiskey he'd picked up in a saloon on his way over from Marshal Emmett Doyle's office. He expelled a weary sigh and took a drink. The liquor burned its way down his throat to his belly then he took another sip.
He stared at the saddle and saddlebags he had tossed in the corner of his hotel room. "Damn sons of bitches," he mumbled before he took another swig.