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The Devil She Knows
By DIANE WHITESIDE
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Diane Whiteside
All right reserved.
Chapter OneArizona Territory, north of Tucson, September 1878
The two stagecoaches raced onward into the setting sun, hurling dust into the sky like profligate gamblers. A covey of rifle-toting braves could have hidden in their wake's sandstorm, or their future hosts' few fences.
Gareth Lowell scanned their back trail using the best spyglass available within a day's ride from Job's Wells. Lady Luck had favored him enough at the card tables to give him this expensive piece of optics; he never bothered to look for the fickle wench anywhere else and simply went prepared for the worst.
Apaches were somewhere in this barren valley, but farther than his rifle and pair of Colt Peacemakers could reach. At least the fine bowie knife Portia Townsend had given him couldn't sink into any enemies at the moment.
He'd ridden all night from Prescott to meet this stagecoach at the dying station. He'd have fought Cochise's entire band for the chance to slog through hell, if William Donovan had asked him to.
He simply needed a few more minutes until he could escape Job's Wells.
Built atop an old Indian ruin, the stagecoach station's lone building was sunk halfway into the ground and no wall stood more than four feet high. Its pale stones melted and blurred at the corners like their builders' ghosts. Only a few, dark brown splatters survived to hint at why those inhabitants had departed, with deep gouges beside once crimson stains.
A single circle of stones rising in the center courtyard stood stalwart below its wooden arch, silent witness to this outpost's long purpose. A well was priceless in this wilderness of sand and thorns, carved by mountain ranges like coiled rattlesnakes. Reaching the next drink of sweet water meant riding hard for at least one day, while a man's skin twitched every time a breeze blew lest it be an Apache death blow.
Five horses fretted in the rickety excuse for a paddock, swishing their tails and warily assessing their surroundings. Four of them were saddled, while the fifth was a fully loaded pack horse. The two best saddle horses came from the Donovan & Sons stable, of course, something which reassured Gareth at a level so deep he merely had to glance at them and his heartbeat would ease.
Now the trailing stagecoach was close enough to count the rifles bristling from every window and the roof. Either the journey through Red Rock Pass had been nastier than usual or this crew was more determined than most of their kind to show how they'd protect the leader at all costs.
Gareth was hoping for the second reason. A smart man would put his money on the first.
"Any sign of Apaches?" asked Baylor. Like Gareth, his rifle rested against the wall beside him but a row of cartridge boxes, like substitutes for absent reinforcements, were lined up before him. His unkempt terrier Tornado paced beside his feet, a ragged ear alertly cocked.
"Nothing on the stages' back trail, in the east and north," Gareth answered.
Kenly grunted, the single sound indicating full understanding of everything either the younger man or Tornado hadn't said. The dog would have sounded the loudest alarm, if he'd found enemies coming in.
As rail-thin as Baylor was barrel-chested, the two had never been seen far apart during the years Gareth had known them. But each other's company was all they clung to-certainly not steady jobs or a single place.
"Nor where they're going." Baylor slung his rifle over his shoulder and rapidly stuffed the ammunition back into his pockets, with the dexterous movements of a poker shark readying himself for a new game.
The first stagecoach turned for the station, still moving so quickly that the ground shook slightly and the air trembled under the horses' tack's metallic ringing and the wheels' heavy rumble.
Baylor and Kenly promptly raced to fetch the previously prepared water for the horses, Tornado uttering small yips at their heels. Here and now, nothing was more important to them than waving the two stages goodbye.
Gareth waited on the yard's edge, rifle in hand, alert for any signs of attack. Five minutes from now and the visitors would be gone, having left behind the crucial package and its courier.
Then they would hit the trail together. Two armed men riding for Tucson these days had perhaps an even chance of making it there alive.
A door opened and a passenger burst out of the dusty coach.
"Gareth, my friend!" A well-dressed apparition hurtled toward him with no hint of his messenger. "Why are you here and not Uncle William?"
Portia Townsend held out her hands to him, her face shining with delight underneath a ribbon-bedecked hat. Her dancing feet sent her new and supposedly grownup skirts' hems twirling fast enough to kick up small dust devils.
Who the hell had dropped her skirts and put her in that adult dress? Didn't they know she was a child?
How old was she, anyway?
She'd been twelve when they met. No decent man lusted after a little girl, whether or not she was the boss's niece. Given how she missed her younger brothers, it was easier to think of her as a younger sister who needed a playmate.
When the devil had she grown enough curves to fill out a corset?
No, he would not consider her that way. This attire was another bit of her chicanery, designed to twist him around her finger and start another escapade.
He would never become obsessed with a child.
But her youth made it made worse for her to be here.
His stomach plummeted into an icy hell somewhere below his boots. He should have known the peace was too good to last. He'd have far rather heard hundreds of war cries erupting out of Victorio's army, than that single feminine whoop of joy.
If anything happened to her ... Dear God in heaven, he couldn't let Portia end up like other victims of the murderous Apaches and similar bandits, bullet-ridden and burned like barbecued hogs because their murderers wouldn't let anyone leave a long-planned death trap.
The old, never-forgotten stench washed back over him again and his belly knotted like a rattlesnake ready to strike. He snapped his greeting at Portia like a lasso, cloaking his worry in a rough edge.
"What in the Sam Hill are you doing here?" he demanded. "Weren't you supposed to have started the fall term at the new fancy school by now?"
Portia's arms drooped back to her side, a fitting end for a journey which had begun badly before taking an appalling jog in the middle.
Dear heavens, a scorpion dumped out of a boot would have received a friendlier smile from him. She hadn't expected to be welcomed into Arizona. She'd barely hoped to see him so soon, since even rolling stones gathered more moss than Gareth did. But surely their past escapades had earned her more consideration from her oldest friend.
"Ah, yes." Her smile evaporated faster than drops of water on a sun-baked rock. She should have realized she'd have to confess immediately to the worst part.
She squared her shoulders. Gareth was the best man in the world and he'd never condone even the slightest falsehood. "I already did."
His eyes narrowed, in the typical start to a blistering inquisition.
At least with Gareth, once she'd told the truth-no matter how bad-he never stayed angry with her. So the sooner she told him why she was here, the faster she'd learn where Uncle William was now and the latest news about Aunt Viola. They'd taken Gareth under their wing since Uncle William hired him at age sixteen.
"Gentlemen, you may have five minutes to stretch your legs while the little lady visits her friend," one of the drivers shouted. "If you're late, we'll leave for California without you."
Gareth shot the stage company's senior official a glare promising retribution. He didn't need time to talk to her; he probably wanted help getting her back into that rolling lockbox.
The driver simply glanced significantly toward the western horizon, with its mountain pass leading to the next cavalry post, then checked his pocket watch. Any extra time for conversation was a gift, given how fast the lengthening shadows in that narrow route could conceal an ambush for the two coaches.
Genuine shock thudded through Portia but she didn't turn to see if the man had done anything additional to deserve Gareth's condemnation. Gareth always insisted ladies should be treated with the utmost consideration. So why was he objecting to the added courtesy of allowing her time for a visit with her old friend?
She managed a noncommittal smile, one of the few things she'd learned other than music from all those ridiculous schools.
Men stepped down from the stages, talking about the unexpected rest and comparing their guns. Gareth's two companions ran forward to start watering the horses.
Gareth nodded curt comprehension to the driver and headed over to the paddock where he and Portia could have a somewhat private conversation.
Portia cast her eyes down from underneath her new hat, the only one which matched her new, long dress. Her cheeks flushed appallingly hot.
Far too long experience with her gave him painfully fast understanding of the situation.
"Did you run away from there?" Gareth demanded and fixed his steel-gray eyes on her. "Or did you and that friend get into another scrape? Isn't Cynthia her name?"
"It wasn't Cynthia's fault; it was mine." She spread her hands, wishing she didn't want to hug him. Or kiss him. Or run off to join a circus with him. Life would be far easier if she could bamboozle him just a little, the way she could flummox her father. Of course, the amount of attention Father gave her was so limited that he might believe almost any nonsensical yarn, simply to get her out of his life. He'd never dealt well with his daughter, only his sons.
"Why did you leave this one, Portia?" Gareth sharpened his tone.
None of which meant telling the truth would be pleasant.
She huffed and brushed off her skirts before looking at him again. "My headmistress announced-to the entire school!-that all Irish and Papists are doomed to eternal damnation."
Gareth's fingers curled over his gun's butt. His face hardened until a bowie knife would have appeared friendlier. She'd seen that look before, when he'd faced down a drunken Barbary Coast mob to bring them home safe from seeing the bearded lady at the circus.
For the first time in almost a week, her stomach lost its roiling boil. Somebody else would have fought, too. Even staying close to her three brothers hadn't compared to avenging that insult.
"I knew you'd understand," she sighed, expressing a certainty she hadn't known needed to be put into words until she heard it echo to the world.
He rubbed his mouth. "What happened after that?"
"Well, I couldn't let her escape unharmed, could I? Not when Uncle William is both Irish and a believer in Catholicism, and, and ..." Her tongue stumbled below the tears glinting in her eyes.
"The best man either of us have ever met?" Gareth suggested gently.
"Exactly!" agreed Portia ferociously. "Not to mention how he and Aunt Viola adore each other."
He nodded agreement, probably remembering all the times Uncle William and Aunt Viola had shared the warmth of their loving home with him. She'd never asked him where his own family was and he didn't offer such news. The Code of the West insisted every man be accepted for what he was, not who he'd been, even if that meant leaving family behind.
His jaw tightened, until his lips stretched into their usual severe lines, as if holding back memories too painful to express.
Poor darling. Ever since she'd first met him, she'd longed to stroke his cheek and bring him comfort. Her news should help him.
Chapter TwoSeveral of the other passengers came back from using the station's meager facilities.
Were there any flashes of light or blurs of dust on the stages' back trail? No, no signs of anyone tracking those plump targets. But there were still a few hours of daylight left and Apaches were far too canny to let themselves be easily seen.
She needed to tell him about the message soon, so he could make arrangements for handling it.
"Better tell the boss man in Yuma to find another fool if he wants somebody here for next week's run," Baylor announced, his voice carrying clearly from beside one of the stages.
"You two won't stay? Guess I can't blame you for standing around and waiting for Apaches to plow you under." The second driver began to examine one of his wheelers' hooves. "Where shall I have the company send your pay?"
Baylor and Kenly silently queried each other over the horses' backs, while Tornado watched alertly.
"Denver," Kenly uttered at last.
"Colorado?" questioned the first driver. "But Tucson is only a few days' ride south."
"Past Victorio's band and every savage who wants to join up with him." The second driver dug a small stone out from his horses' hoof, then let it down. The bay gelding snorted and settled back into his traces, ready to finish the run.
"And the other heathen come out to murder and rob, no matter whether they call themselves Apaches or not." The first driver poured a ladleful of water over his head. "You're wise men, my friends."
Baylor spun a store-bought biscuit high into the air, more like a gambler making a bet than a stationmaster delivering rations. The four men snatched it and its brethren up then settled into eating with controlled haste.
"Where is your headmistress now?" Gareth looked at Portia sternly.
"Her love letters to and from the school's chief trustee were accidentally released to the press." Portia tilted her chin in the air, centuries of aristocratic breeding defying him to ask who was responsible.
Gareth grunted acknowledgement, undoubtedly biding his time until he asked her how she'd pulled the feat off. "And you left town."
"For California by the southern route. I thought the northern route would be watched by Father's men, even though the train is faster." Her voice was softer than the hoofbeats in the sand behind them, where horses stated their eagerness for the open trail.
Gareth pulled his hat off and slapped the dust off against his leg with unnecessary force.
She smoothed out her skirts, her heart melting yet again. Had there ever been two people more attuned to each other? She hadn't even explicitly mentioned her discomfort at seeing Father. Yet Gareth had reacted violently, smacking his leg as if it were an opponent.
She needed to exchange her news for his and finish up the Donovan & Sons' business quickly.
"What are you doing here?" He shoved his hat back on his head.
Now the nasty part-why she'd detoured south from the more direct, east-west route. Hours of riding in the dusty, dirty coach, her stomach wound tighter than a watchspring, while her fingers tensed and her skin shrank from every pebble spit out from under the wheels, lest it be an Apache bullet.
"Orrin-Uncle William's messenger?" she began in a soft, light voice. The small watch Gareth had given her, supposedly to help her be more punctual, nestled against her throat.
Gareth nodded brusquely, silently urging her to hurry.
"He came down with dysentery in Santa Fe. When I found him like that, I knew I had to bring the package myself. He said Uncle William needed it quickly and discreetly, not by the usual route," she added.
And when the owner of Donovan & Sons, one of the West's top freighting houses, needed something transported immediately for himself, arguments weren't wanted or needed. He and Aunt Viola had reared her after Mother's death and she knew how hard it was to deliver even the most ordinary goods. She'd never thought this item, clearly a trigger for far greater parcels, would be easy.
"How did you convince Orrin to share with you the details of a secret business journey?" Gareth demanded.
"He already knew I was Uncle William's niece. Besides, he was very ill." She shuddered at the memory of the dedicated courier's weakness. "I only did so because he was certain Uncle William was desperate for it."
Agreement flashed through Gareth's eyes for an instant. "I have the package with me," she announced as quietly as possible.
Package? Gareth frowned, clearly unprepared for the full details.
She tapped her once slender waist significantly until leather thudded under her jacket.
"Gold?" he mouthed. He braced his thumbs into his gun belt.
She nodded, biting her lip. "Did I do well?" she whispered.
"You did right fine, honey. As well or better than any man." Nervous as he was of watchers, pride still blazed out of every inch in his body.
Excerpted from The Devil She Knows by DIANE WHITESIDE Copyright © 2010 by Diane Whiteside. Excerpted by permission.
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