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November 10, 1871
At one end of the congested railway platform, a small figure stood a short distance from the milling crowd. Robed completely in black, Windsor Richmond was oblivious to the cries of porters pushing rumbling baggage carts past her. Instead, she focused her sapphire eyes with steadfast concentration on two tall, black-haired gentlemen conversing together near where a westward-bound train was hissing and spewing clouds of steam in preparation for departure. One of the men was Stone Kincaid, and she had come to kill him.
Windsor impatiently readjusted the bulky black wimple, which fell in draping folds just past her shoulders. Since she had donned the somber nun's habit, she had found the clinging headdress and long, full skirt cumbersome and uncomfortable. Even more important, such restrictive clothing impeded the lithe agility she would need to subdue the big American.
Irritated, she longed to throw off the dress and wear only the black silk tunic and trousers she had on beneath the nun's costume. The attire to which she had become accustomed while growing to womanhood in China was so much more practical. She could not understand why the nuns required so many layers of clothing. Even harder to understand was the inclination of the American women to subject themselves to strange binding garments beneath their voluminous outer garb.
The people of the United States were very peculiar, and though she had lived for several months in the city of San Francisco, which lay far to the west of Chicago, she still could not comprehend many of the American customs. She was eager to finish her mission so she could return to the peaceful mountain province in northern China where she belonged.
Her delicately arched blond brows drawn together, she scanned the mob of people rushing around as if afflicted with wild-eyed panic. She was constantly amazed by the huge numbers of inhabitants in the cities of this land where her parents had been born. How could these Americans attain inner peace, living in such loud and chaotic surroundings?
With so many curious eyes forever watching everyone else, Windsor would have to be cautious. She would have to wait until the precise opportunity presented itself, then she would avenge poor Hung-pin's murder. Grief grabbed at her heart, gouging it with sharp claws, further bruising emotions still raw and bleeding from the death of her beloved blood brother a little over a fortnight ago. At times she missed Hung-pin so much she felt she couldn't bear the pain of being without him for another moment.
The inhuman way Hung-pin had been killed was partly why she felt so compelled to punish his murderer. Stone Kincaid had forced Hung-pin to suffer long hours of excruciating agony before his spirit had fled his body. Windsor shuddered, unable to forget how her friend had looked hanging from the tree limb, the flesh of his back torn away in ragged strips. She would have to remain very patient to exact vengeance for such a heinous crime.
But perseverance was a virtue Windsor had been taught well. When at the age of ten she had been brought to the Temple of the Blue Mountain to live with Hung-pin and the other disciples, the Old One had taken her to a dark, dusty corner where many candles burned and the smell of incense perfumed the air. The wise sage had gestured with wordless eloquence at a fine-spun spider's web suspended like gossamer between the brass candelabra and the stone wall.
For many weeks afterward, she had spent her early morning hours of meditation before the silken-stranded net, observing the work of the swift brown spider. She had taken note of the way he fashioned his beautiful, glistening designs, then backed away until he seemed to disappear, to await his unsuspecting prey. In time, Windsor had understood the Old One's lesson of steadfastness. She would be in no hurry. She would watch and wait until Stone Kincaid struggled helplessly in her own web, like the big green dragonfly had done until the small, clever spider had crept forth and devoured him.
Her interest sharpened as one of the two men she observed looked at an American lady wearing a distinctive scarlet cloak. Windsor had noticed before that he glanced often toward where she stood beside their waiting carriage. The woman in red had accompanied the two men since they had left their gray stone mansion on Lincoln Avenue.
To her surprise, Windsor had found the task of locating Stone Kincaid amazingly simple, considering the size of the big town on the southern shores of the great inland water called Lake Michigan. Upon her very first inquiry about him when she had arrived from San Francisco the day before, the stationmaster at this very railway depot had spoken freely of the Kincaids. He had told her they were a well-known and wealthy family—the owners and operators of dozens of the locomotives that traveled daily in and out of Chicago.
Even more astonishing, the helpful railway employee had had no qualms about giving her Stone Kincaid's address and precise directions to his home! She had walked there, watched, and waited with the patience of her eight-legged friend until the three Americans had led her back to the departure platform.
Yet she did not know which man was Stone Kincaid. They resembled each other very much, both tall and lean with strong, thickly muscled bodies. One of them was dressed much more formally, in a finely tailored, dark gray frock coat and matching waistcoat, with an elegant beaver hat upon his head.
The other man was attired as were many of the Americans she had seen in the streets of San Francisco. Like the gunfighters there, he wore a brown leather vest over a white linen shirt, and he was heavily armed. Two guns were secured in the black-and-silver holsters strapped to his thighs, and he carried a rifle in one hand, as well as a black leather travelling valise. Apparently he was the one ready to embark on the journey west.
Faint scratching sounds captured Windsor's attention. Jun-li is impatient, she thought with a smile, lifting her bamboo suitcase from where she had hung it across her chest by its sturdy leather strap.
"Shh, my little friend," she whispered through the closely woven slats, "I will take you out soon, I promise."
But first she must determine which man was the evil Stone Kincaid. Holding Jun-li's case by its carrying handle, she hurried across the planked platform toward her unsuspecting dragonfly.
"Stone, you're making a hell of a big mistake! Dammit, your obsession with finding Emerson Clan is going to get you killed!"
Stone Kincaid studied the passengers boarding the train to California, only vaguely listening to the familiar harangue that his older brother, Gray, was spouting again with such fervor. How many times since they had heard that Emerson Clan had been seen in California had Gray reiterated the same monotonous arguments? Regardless, nothing Gray said, or could ever say, would keep Stone from tracking down Clan. Stone had been after the murdering bastard for too damn long—since the day six years ago when Northern forces had marched into Andersonville, Georgia, and liberated him and thousands of other Federal soldiers from nothing less than hell on earth.
"For God's sake, Stone, you haven't heard a word I've said, have you?"
With a concerted effort, Stone refocused his attention on his brother.
"You're wasting your breath, Gray," he replied quietly. "I'm going after Clan, and there's nothing you can do about it." He swung an arm toward his sister-in-law, Tyler, where she awaited her husband near their conveyance. "So why don't you concern yourself with your wife and the child she carries? I can take care of myself."
Gray's handsome features softened as he turned his gaze upon Tyler. When a half smile tugged at his brother's lips, Stone inwardly shook his head, having grown accustomed to Gray's besotted, lovelorn expressions since Tyler MacKenzie had waltzed into Gray's life nearly a year ago. A well-practiced con artist hell-bent on swindling Gray out of ten thousand dollars, she had ultimately stolen his heart instead, a feat Stone would never have thought possible in a matrimony-avoiding bachelor like Gray.
"My God," Gray said, his gaze lingering fondly on his petite wife, "I get sick to my stomach when I think how close Emerson Clan came to hurting Tyler and the baby."
At Gray's mention of Clan's latest crimes against his family, rage roared inside Stone with the fierceness of a bonfire. Only a month ago, Clan had been in Chicago, enticed there by one of Tyler's confidence games.
Designed to help Stone capture him, Tyler's plan had succeeded, and Stone had reveled at the sight of Clan thrown into jail. But because of the fires that were raging throughout the city at the time, Clan had managed to escape from the authorities and had kidnapped Tyler, then nearly killed Gray when he and Stone had tried to rescue her. Still, Clan had got away.
"And he left a gunshot' wound in your side to remember him by," Stone muttered to Gray, his voice tight. "Which is one more reason for me to go after him. He's worse than an animal. He kills and tortures because he enjoys it. And he'll keep on murdering innocent people until someone puts a bullet through his skull. I intend to be the one who does it."
Succumbing to defeat, Gray shook his head. "And there's nothing I can say or do to keep you here?"
"Then be careful, and for God's sake, don't underestimate Clan again. He's the closest thing to a devil I've ever known."
"He belongs in hell, all right, and that's exactly where I intend to send him—"
Stone's vicious vow was cut off as he was struck from behind and knocked forward a step. Going down in a low crouch, he spun, his Colt revolver cold against his palm. Dismay flooded him when he realized he had drawn his weapon on a Catholic Sister. The poor woman lay sprawled on the platform, the breath knocked out of her. Appalled, Stone quickly reholstered his weapon and knelt to assist her.
"Please forgive me, Sister. Are you hurt?" The nun didn't answer his solicitous inquiry, rubbing her arm as Stone drew her to her feet. Standing between Gray and him, she appeared tiny indeed: both men stood well over six feet.
"No, I do not believe I am injured," the nun murmured, rearranging her black skirt and righting the heavy silver crucifix which hung around her waist. "I am the one at fault. I was in a hurry and did not watch where I was going."
Instantly, Stone was struck by her voice. Low and melodious, her words fell upon his ear like the soft, sweetly lilting notes of a harp. A slight accent flowed through her speech, an unusual one that he did not recognize. She looked at him then, and Stone found himself staring into large limpid eyes of deep midnight blue, fringed with sweeping golden lashes. Even more than their beautiful sapphire color transfixed him; he was arrested by what he sensed to be a deep tranquility aglow in their calm, quiet depths.
Uncannily, he was held captive by the most peculiar sensation. With some kind of innate certainty, he felt as if he knew her already, that somewhere long ago, at a time never to be forgotten, he had loved her. Slightly aghast at his ridiculous and uncharacteristic reaction to the woman, he stared at her, deciding she was much too young to be a nun.
"Since my brother here seems at a loss for words," Gray was saying, effectively snapping Stone's spell, "I'll do the honor, Sister. My name is Gray Kincaid, and this is my brother, Stone."
"How do you do," she answered softly. "I am Sister Mary."
When she rubbed her elbow again, Gray leaned forward, a frown of concern on his brow. "Are you sure you're not hurt?"
"I am fine. I must apologize for being so clumsy."
"No, I'm sure I was at fault," Stone ventured courteously, but he couldn't seem to drag his eyes off her face. Her fine-boned features were small and delicate, and her skin was as smooth and clear as the purest white alabaster, though at the moment, her high cheekbones were flushed with rose-tinged color. His regard moved to her lips. Before he could stop himself, he had mentally tasted them.
Stone quickly jerked the reins of his thoughts. God forgive me, the woman's a nun, he thought, uncomfortable and not a little ashamed of his erotic turn of mind. To hide his own embarrassment, he bent and retrieved the small bamboo suitcase that she had dropped.
"Please allow me to escort you to the train, Sister Mary. I was just about to bid good-bye to my brother."
"You are very kind," the nun replied in her musical voice.
Once again Stone vainly attempted to pinpoint her odd, lyrical accent. A few feet away, the conductor boomed out one last hearty call to board, impelling Stone to stretch his palm toward Gray.
"Take care of Tyler," he told him, grinning, "and let me know how our little sister fares on her adventure in Mexico."
"I'm just grateful that Carlisle has Chase Lancaster looking after her while she's visiting the Perez family in Mexico City. Otherwise, I'd really be worried, considering how often she manages to get herself in trouble."
Gray's criticism of their headstrong younger sister was mellowed by an indulgent smile, but his expression quickly sobered.
"Watch your back, Stone. This time I've got a bad feeling about you going after Emerson Clan."
"Don't worry about me. You know I can take care of myself. I'll send word to you as soon as I get him."
Gray looked no less worried, but he nodded, then politely tipped his hat to the young Catholic Sister. As Gray turned and wended his way through the people congregated to wave good-bye to those boarding the express train departing west, Stone lifted his arm in a farewell wave to his beautiful cinnamon-eyed sister-in-law. Despite Tyler's unsavory past, Stone had become fond of her during the past few months. She had changed a lot since she had married his brother, and all for the better. Gray was a lucky man.
Returning his attention to the black-garbed nun at his side, he clasped his fingers around her elbow.
"Are you traveling far, Sister Mary?" he asked, guiding her toward the train.
Her head dipped forward in an affirmative nod, making the black folds of her wimple settle around her face. He found himself wondering what color her hair was beneath the somber cloth. Golden blond, he decided, like her eyelashes.
"I am to join others of my order in San Francisco," she answered softly.
"Then it appears we'll be traveling companions for the next week or so," Stone remarked as they reached the narrow iron stairs leading onto the open-air rear platform of the nearest car.
He assisted the nun up the steps, then swung up easily behind her.
"I must find the conductor and purchase my ticket," she said, gazing up at him. "Thank you for carrying my box. I will take it now. You are very kind to help me."
"My pleasure, ma'am."
Stone relinquished her suitcase and watched as she slipped the long leather strap over her head and across her chest. What an odd way for a lady to carry her bag, he thought in surprise, almost the way a soldier would wear his bandoliers. In fact, he realized suddenly, the suitcase itself was unusual. Most women he knew carried their belongings in decorated bandboxes or tapestry-covered valises.
Without further comment, the lovely Catholic Sister moved away from him and disappeared into the crowded aisle of the first-class coach. Stone grimaced to think of the long journey he faced, hemmed in by so many other people. He disliked enclosed places, and he already dreaded the days and nights ahead of him in the stifling confines of the passenger car.
The engine roared, and, accompanied by clanging bells, waving handkerchiefs, and many shouted farewells, the locomotive's pistons began to pump, chugging slowly at first, then faster as the train moved away from the platform, steam hissing in vapor clouds from the underbelly of the iron engine.
Stone waved again to Gray and Tyler. He would miss them, but more than anything else, he was eager to get to San Francisco. This time he wouldn't make the mistake of turning Emerson Clan over to the law. This time, he would kill him himself. With his bare hands, if necessary.
Excerpted from Dragon Fire by Linda Ladd. Copyright © 1992 Linda Ladd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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