Crooked Heartsby Patricia Gaffney
Two con artists team up in 1880s California for the score of a lifetime—but end up fighting for their lives instead In a stagecoach en route to San Francisco, Grace Rousselot is posing as a nun to drum up “donations” from fellow travelers. Across from her, Reuben Jones is faking blindness to prey on unsuspecting travelers. Both grifters/b>… See more details below
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Two con artists team up in 1880s California for the score of a lifetime—but end up fighting for their lives instead In a stagecoach en route to San Francisco, Grace Rousselot is posing as a nun to drum up “donations” from fellow travelers. Across from her, Reuben Jones is faking blindness to prey on unsuspecting travelers. Both grifters are surprised to learn that they have competition, and even more surprised when their stagecoach is ambushed and robbed, leaving them both flat broke. Not keen to discuss the robbery with the police, Reuben and Grace decide to work together to recoup some of their losses. Soon enough, what starts out as a practical partnership evolves into something more. And with the Chinese mafia hot on their heels, neither is sure just how far they can trust a man—or a woman—with a crooked heart.
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Meet the Author
Patricia Gaffney is the bestselling author of more than a dozen historical romance novels. She studied literature at Marymount College, the University of London, George Washington University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before becoming a court reporter. Gaffney lives with her husband in Blue Ridge Summit, Pennsylvania.
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By Patricia Gaffney
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1994 Patricia Gaffney
All rights reserved.
Don't steal; thou'lt never thus compete Successfully in business. Cheat.
Sister Mary Augustine's little silver derringer was cutting into her thigh.
And it was hot, hot, hot in the airless stagecoach, which needed new springs. The cowboy sprawled unconscious on the opposite seat smelled like an old drunk rolled up in an alley. How could the blind man sitting next to him stand the stench? They said blindness sharpened the other four senses; if that was true, the poor man must be half dead from the fumes.
A cold beer and a pillow for her behind, that's what Sister Augustine needed. Stirring furtively on the leather seat, she tried to shift the derringer without fidgeting; it must've slid to the back of her garter, because it felt like she was sitting on it. "Be careful with that thing," Henry had warned her; "don't shoot off anything important." If she could just get her hand under her thigh for two unobserved seconds, she could move the damn gun. The blind man sure wouldn't see her, and neither would the smelly cowboy. She slanted a glance at the fourth passenger, seated next to her. He'd been dozing a few minutes ago.
But now he was lying in wait to catch her eye. "Sister," he greeted her, with a big, friendly smile. "Mighty hot for early June, wouldn't you say?"
After three weeks on the road, Sister Augustine recognized his type, because there was one on every stage, train, or ferry boat she'd taken since leaving Santa Rosa: he was the one who wanted to talk. A whole hour of silence had gone by since the stage had left Monterey, so this one must've decided he'd waited long enough.
"Indeed I would, sir," she answered smartly. "But remember the psalm: 'With the Lord as thy keeper, the sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.'" Sometimes, she'd found, you could head a talker off at the pass by going straight at him with the Bible.
"So true. And don't forget Matthew: 'He maketh the sun rise on the evil and the good, and sendeth rain on the just and the unjust.'"
She nodded in devout agreement, stumped.
"George Sweeney's my name," he said, sticking out his hand.
She gave it her nun's shake, limp but fervent, and murmured, "Sister Mary Augustine," while inside she rejoiced. Sweeney—Irish—Catholic!
"A real pleasure, Sister. What's your order?" He eyed her plain black habit curiously.
"The Blessed Sisters of Hope. We're a small community; our mother house is in Humboldt County."
"You're a long way from home, then." He leaned toward her and jerked his head sideways at the snoring cowboy. "Is it safe for you to be traveling all by yourself?"
"I don't, normally," she confided. "But my companion, Sister Sebastian, fell ill in Santa Barbara and wasn't able to go on. After we determined that she would recover without assistance, we decided that I should continue our work alone. We believe it's God's will, and we have absolute faith that He'll protect me."
He sat back admiringly. "Well, I don't doubt it for a second." He'd taken off his derby hat in her honor, a generous gesture since it had been hiding his bald spot. He was short and plump, and his little feet in their shiny patent-leather shoes barely touched the floor. She'd pegged him earlier as a traveling salesman because of all the luggage he was carrying, stacked over their heads on top of the Wells Fargo stagecoach. Now, studying him more closely, she decided he looked too flush for a drummer, and too clean. All the better. And praise the Lord, his name was Sweeney, which automatically doubled her estimate of his donation potential.
"What is your work, Sister, if you don't mind my asking?"
Easier and easier. She clasped her hands to her breast with subdued fervor. "I'm on a fund-raising mission for our order, sir. We desperately need money for one of our hospitals in Africa, because it's in danger of having to close—which would be a catastrophe. We've been collecting donations from the dioceses throughout the state for several weeks now. I'll be going home after one last effort in San Francisco. After that, I hope to be sent to Africa myself, where my true skills can be put to better use."
"Your true skills?"
"As a hospice nurse. But, of course, our sacred mandate is to accept God's will without question, and for now it seems His will is for me to toil for the little children in this humble way."
"It's a children's hospital?"
"Orphaned children. With incurable diseases."
Mr. Sweeney's pudgy cheeks pinkened with emotion; she thought there might even be a gleam of moisture in his pale blue eyes. She glanced away, but in her peripheral vision she saw him fumbling for his purse. "I only wish this was more," he whispered discreetly, pressing a bill into her hand.
"Bless you. Oh, bless you, Mr. Sweeney!" she whispered back. A tenner, she noted with satisfaction; exactly what she'd bet herself he would give. God, she was getting good at this. She slid the greenback into her black leather pocketbook to join the other bills and gold pieces she'd collected in the past three weeks: a little over four thousand dollars. Henry wouldn't tell her exactly how much they needed, but she was pretty sure it was more than that. Still, four thousand dollars was a hell of a start.
She glanced hopefully across the aisle at the blind man, wishing he'd feel a similar charitable tug on his own purse strings. She guessed he was awake, but it was hard to tell; his round, cobalt-blue spectacles were opaque and his eyes behind them were invisible. She'd been staring at him off and on for the past hour, feeling guilty about it but unable to stop, because his tragic good looks fascinated her. Had he always been blind, she wondered, or only since some terrible accident? How did he make his living? His black broadcloth suit was very fine, his gray silk necktie sedate and expensive. That was all to the good, but a man's shoes were the surest clue to the health of his finances, and in this case they gave Sister Augustine cause for concern. Run down at the heels and cracked across the insteps, they were the shoes of someone who was either rather poor or rather careless about his appearance, and neither trait seemed to characterize the handsome blind man. Or—distressing thought—they could be the shoes of a man who couldn't see his shoes. The idea made her sit back, ashamed of her rude, sneaky staring. The poor man! So young, so vital and strong. So good-looking.
He had beautiful hands, too. She'd noticed them right away, clasped around the carved handle of the walking stick that jutted upright between his knees. Long, clean, sensitive fingers, artistically bony, and short white nails. No rings. A priest's hands, or a sculptor's. She heartily wished one of them would start reaching for his wallet.
Nuns didn't initiate conversations with male strangers, so she was relieved when Mr. Sweeney, who had been darting secret looks at the blind man with almost as much vulgar curiosity as she had, said straight out, "How do you do, sir?" He took care to aim his voice precisely, so there wouldn't be any doubt as to which man he was addressing—not that the reeking cowboy was in any condition to misunderstand.
"How do you do," the blind man replied readily. He had an English accent—the last thing she'd have expected. "It's Mr. Sweeney, isn't it? I'm Edward Cordoba." He held his hand out toward Sweeney, and they shook. "Sister," he murmured, with a small, respectful bow in her direction.
"Mr. Cordoba," she murmured back. He was Spanish?
You could count on Sweeney not to beat around the bush. "Do you come from Monterey, sir?" he asked directly.
"A little south of there. My father owns a ranchero in the valley."
Sweeney made a knowing, impressed sound.
"One of the smaller ones," Mr. Cordoba added with a deprecating half-smile. "Only a few hundred thousand acres."
His voice was low-pitched and intimate, like a cello playing a slow waltz. It took her a few seconds to register the last sentence. When she did, she had to remind herself to close her mouth, which had fallen open.
"Cordoba," Mr. Sweeney said slowly. "That's a Spanish name, isn't it? And yet I could swear your accent's British."
Mr. Cordoba smiled. He had extremely white teeth. "You've got a good ear, sir. My mother is English. I studied in that country for a number of years."
"Well, well! You're a scholar, then?"
His smile withered. He turned his face toward the window. "I was once."
She and Mr. Sweeney exchanged looks of chagrin. There was an awkward pause.
"What takes you to San Francisco, sir?" Sweeney asked, rallying. "If you don't mind my asking."
"Not at all. I've enrolled in a school there to learn to read Braille."
"Is that so? How does that work, now? I've heard of it, but never really understood how they do it."
"It's a system of raised dots, each representing a letter of the alphabet; one feels them with one's fingertips." He dropped his chin, as if he were contemplating his long, elegant hands. Sister Augustine contemplated them with him. They looked capable of reading raised dots to her.
"Then you haven't been blind for long, I take it?"
She stared at Sweeney, confounded by the bluntness of his prying—although he hadn't asked anything she wasn't dying to know herself.
"Long?" Edward Cordoba repeated, very low. A minute passed; she thought that was all the answer he was going to give, and began trying to decipher it. But then he said, "No, I don't suppose you'd call it long. To me, though, it seems ... a lifetime."
The painful pause lasted much longer this time. She wanted to comfort him somehow, but she couldn't think how; touching him was out of the question and, under the circumstances, a sympathetic facial expression wouldn't accomplish anything. So she only said quietly, "I'm so terribly sorry, Mr. Cordoba."
He made a graceful gesture with his hands, at once dismissing her concern and thanking her for it. "And now, sir," he said with strained heartiness, "it's your turn—tell us your traveling story. Where are you from and what takes you to San Francisco?"
"Ah!" Clearly Mr. Sweeney had been hoping somebody would ask him that question. "Well, you might say I'm on a mission too, like Sister Mary Augustine, although mine's a much more secular mission. I'm the assistant curator for Chinese antiquities at the Museum of East Asian Art in St. Louis. For the past six weeks, I've been touring your fine state with a small collection of objets d'art." He turned to Sister, politely including her in his answer. "It's a cultural swap, you might say, a reciprocal traveling art exchange between our museum and the Museum of Art in San Francisco."
She murmured politely.
"Do you mean you're traveling with the exhibit now?" Mr. Cordoba asked. "It's actually on board the coach?"
"Yes, indeed. I'm on the last leg of the trip—I'm not sorry to say, delightful though it's been—and starting the day after tomorrow, San Francisco will host the final display."
"It must be a very small exhibit."
"Select," he corrected dryly. "And if I may say so, very, very special."
"I imagine the pieces must be quite valuable," Sister Augustine mused.
"Priceless. Beyond price."
She touched a thoughtful finger to her chin. "What sort of pieces are they?" she asked, and Mr. Sweeney began to talk about Ming funerary sculpture and Tang jade, screen paintings and water colors and enameled ceramics. "How fascinating," she exclaimed when he finally wound down. "Would you happen to have a catalog?"
"In my trunk, yes. I'll dig one out for you when we stop for the night, shall I?"
"That's very kind of you." She happened to glance over at Mr. Cordoba just then. He had a thoughtful finger on his chin, too.
Talk grew more general. The unconscious cowboy snored himself awake and glared around at them blearily. A few minutes later the coach rocked to a stop, and they heard the driver jump down into the road.
"Sorry, folks," he called up, "but there's going to be a little delay."
"What's the trouble, Mr. Willis?" Sweeney asked, opening his door.
"Half a split pine tree up ahead, blocking the road. Looks like lightning hit it. Can't go around, on account of a gully on one side and rocks on the other." He pushed his hat back to scratch his head. "It ain't a big pine, I think two-three of us could heft it outa the way pretty easy."
"I'd be glad to assist," the curator offered immediately. Sister Augustine eyed his pudgy frame with misgivings; something about him, maybe his short arms, reminded her of a frog.
Everybody looked at the cowboy. His hangover was palpable, drifting through the air of the hot, motionless coach like a low-lying fog. At the end of a long minute, Mr. Cordoba said gravely, "I'd be happy to lend any assistance I could, but I'm afraid I might be more of a hindrance than a help." More silence. "Still, if you think—"
The cowboy cut him off with a word that started out as "Shhhhh," and tapered off to bitter muttering. "Come on," he snarled, and stepped gingerly out of the coach.
"Won't be a minute," chirped Mr. Sweeney, with more confidence than Sister Augustine thought the circumstances warranted, and jumped out after him.
Alone with Mr. Cordoba, she took the opportunity to unbutton the front of her heavy linen habit, inside of which she was sweating like a stevedore, and fan herself between her breasts. It was impossible not to stare at him while she did so, even though she could see nothing in his bright blue spectacles except her own black-robed, pale-faced reflection. She liked his scholar's forehead and his long beak of a nose, his romantic mouth. She was dying to know what color his eyes were. Brown, probably, because his hair was nearly black. A Spanish father and an English mother, he'd said. And all those acres of ranchero down in Monterey. The very thought caused even more honest Christian charity to flower in Sister Augustine's bosom.
"Warm day," he mentioned.
"It certainly is," she agreed, fanning away.
He turned his head, showing her his hawkish profile, and inhaled a deep breath. "Poppies?"
She looked out the window, following his blind gaze. "Yes, there's a bank of them just beyond a grove of oak trees, about thirty feet away."
His mouth curved in a wistful smile. She guessed that behind the glasses his eyes were closed, and that he was seeing the bright flowers in his memory. She tried to think of something consoling to say, but nothing came to mind. How awful to be blind. If she couldn't see, and someone told her it was God's will, she'd probably curse them.
"I'd like to make a donation to your orphans' hospital, Sister. A sizable one."
"God bless you, Mr. Cordoba," she intoned sedately. With a silent whoop, she lifted her arms and shook both fists in the air like a victorious prizefighter.
He coughed behind his hand. "Do you have a card, a pledge form or something I could fill out?"
"I think I do. I believe I could find one." She opened her pocketbook and thumbed through the pledge cards in her stack. She had about eighty left.
"Perhaps you could give one to me when we stop for the night."
"I might have to ask you to assist me, Sister, in filling in the amount and so forth."
Holy Mother of God. She squeezed her eyes shut tight and forced her voice down a whole octave from where it wanted to be. "It would be my pleasure, Mr. Cordoba."
When the euphoria abated, she remembered that the gun was still chafing her thigh. She cocked her head out the window to make sure the coast was clear. Moving slowly to lessen the sound of rustling cloth, she hitched up her bulky skirts and pulled up the right leg of her drawers. The derringer had slid to the back of her garter; she shifted it to the side where it belonged, wishing she could peel off her thick, hot, ugly black stockings. There was a reddening, gun barrel-shaped indentation on the back of her thigh that hurt; she massaged it with both hands, smiling happily at Mr. Cordoba all the while.
Gravel crunched outside. She barely got her habit down and her face in order before Sweeney and the cowboy pulled open the doors on either side of the coach and climbed in. The driver cracked his whip, and they were off.
Excerpted from CROOKED HEARTS by Patricia Gaffney. Copyright © 1994 Patricia Gaffney. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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