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Gambling on Love
A McCade Legacy Novel
By Nancy Fraser, Patti Shenberger, Erin Molta
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Nancy Fraser and Patti Shenberger
All rights reserved.
Spring, 1867 — St. Francisville, Louisiana
Felicity Beaumont grasped the heavy hunting knife firmly in her hand and lifted. Pressing the shiny blade against her thumb, she tested the sharpness of the weapon's edge. Tiny red bubbles beaded on her skin and she bit back a cry of pain.
Raising the knife level with her chin, she made the first cut. Tears stung her eyes and her knees threatened to buckle beneath her. She made a second cut before stopping to survey the damage.
Not enough. Not nearly enough.
A third cut made her stomach lurch, and with the fourth, tears ran freely down her cheeks.
If Papa could see her now, he'd turn her over his knee. He'd be upset, even angry, especially when he realized she was gone and when he found out what else she had done. With one last swipe of the knife, her latest show of rebellion was complete.
A mound of chestnut silk lay pooled around her ankles, twenty year's growth of hair chopped off in less time than it took Papa to trim his mustache and beard, less time than it took for her to make the most important, albeit reckless, decision of her life.
Felicity tightened the rope around her middle, cinching the scratchy woolen trousers more snugly around her waist. What she wouldn't give at that moment for the soft comfort of her lacy bloomers, the more appealing fragrance of her French perfume. Instead, she resembled a farm boy, her haphazardly cut hair tucked beneath an old, battered hat she'd pulled low across her brow.
Gathering up the linen pillowcase, Felicity startled when its contents rattled like a church bell, disturbing the silence of her bedroom. Thank the saints her papa hadn't yet returned from New Orleans. If she could make good her escape within the hour, she wouldn't run the risk of being caught.
She let herself out through the pantry and followed the narrow pathway toward the edge of the fields. Just short of the fence line, she stopped, waited and listened. It wouldn't do for Mr. Jackson, her father's manager, to see her out and about. Felicity ventured further, closer to her destination. Just short of the stand of weathered shacks, she stopped once more and looked behind her. Breathing a sigh of relief, she opened the wooden gate and let herself inside.
"Jeremiah," she called softly. "Where are you?"
"Over here, Miss Felicity."
Felicity followed the sound of Jeremiah's gravelly voice and stepped behind the first of two buildings. "Is everyone ready?" she asked.
"The women are seeing to the food, and the children are fixin' up the beds like you told us."
"I'm going on ahead, then. I'll meet you behind the mercantile like we planned. From there, it'll be only a short distance to the boat dock."
"I wish you'd let my oldest go with you," Jeremiah told her. "I'm not keen on the idea of you goin' to see them men on your own."
"I'll be fine. Those men, as despicable as they are, want what I have to offer. They're businessmen."
"They're Yankee carpetbaggers, Miss Felicity. They'll cheat you, if'n you're not careful."
"They won't cheat me. I won't let them."
"But —" Jeremiah began, only to stop short when Felicity raised her hand.
"Don't worry. You just get everyone to the meeting place on time. The River Maiden won't wait forever."
Felicity left Jeremiah standing there, still protesting, and made her way back toward the barn. She quickly saddled her mare and climbed astride the gentle animal. She would miss Duchess almost as much as she'd miss her home and a hind sight more than she'd miss her stubborn papa. At least that's what she told herself to keep from crying.
Once she'd left her horse in the care of the local livery, Felicity made her way to the side door of Miss Emily's boarding house. Hesitantly, she lifted her hand and knocked once, twice. On the third try, the door opened and a large man with a grizzled beard appeared. He grinned down at her with his tobacco-stained teeth. Stepping out into the alleyway, he asked, "You the one wantin' to sell some heirlooms?"
Tentatively, Felicity nodded, backpedaling a bit to put some distance between herself and the stranger.
"Let's see what you've got, boy."
Felicity untied the knot she'd fashioned in the pillowcase and reached inside, withdrawing a silver teapot.
The vile man yanked it from her grasp and held it up to the dim light of the kerosene lamp hanging near the door. "What else you got?"
Her hands trembling, Felicity pulled out first one item and then another until she'd laid everything out on the ground at her feet.
"I'll give you two hundred dollars for the lot."
She gasped. She couldn't help it. "No," she finally managed to say.
"Where'd you steal this stuff from anyway?" the man asked.
"I didn't steal it. It belonged to my mother."
The man eyed her up and down and laughed out loud. "Yeah, right. The likes of you never had a mother what could own up to the booty laid out here."
She wanted to refute his claim. Yet, to do so might give away her true identity and spoil her well-laid-out plan. Instead, she told him, "It doesn't really matter where I got the booty. What matters is that you're going to give me a fair price for it."
The man raised his head and pulled himself up to his full height. He looked absolutely menacing and, for the first time, Felicity felt a measure of panic.
"You've got nerve, boy, trying to peddle these goods and then arguing the price."
"These things are worth at least twenty times what you offered."
"I'll make it two fifty. No more."
Anxious to escape the foul man, Felicity nodded, watching in horror as he gathered up her mother's silver candlesticks, teapot, and her father's collection of snuffboxes and stuffed them back into the pillowcase.
"My money," she reminded him.
He reached into his pocket and he pulled out a wad of bills and sorted through them, handing her about half.
Felicity was about to take her leave when the man's meaty hand clamped down heavily on her shoulder. Her breath caught in her throat when he wrapped his fingers around the chain at her neck. "What's this?" the man asked.
"That's mine," she told him.
The man continued to finger the fine gold chain, tugging on it until he'd unearthed the delicate locket at the end. "Now this I'd pay handsomely for, if you're interested in selling."
"No. I — "
The man tightened his grip. "Or, I could just take it."
With his opposite hand, the man reached up and pulled off her cap and then grasped her chin, raising her head until he could meet her gaze head on.
"Well, I'll be. You're not just some scrawny boy after all." Using her necklace to pull her closer, he snickered. "Maybe there's something else you want to sell me, girlie." His tepid breath washed over her and Felicity could taste the bile rising up in her throat.
Nervously, she shook her head. "I've got to go," she told him. "My friends are waiting."
"Oh, I'll let you go all right. Just as soon as — "
Whatever the man was about to say died off when he collapsed in a heap at Felicity's feet. Behind his crumpled form, Felicity met the dark gaze of her savior.
"Jeremiah, thank the saints."
"Miss Felicity, you've got to stop such foolishness." Giving the carpetbagger's still body a nudge with the toe of his boot, Jeremiah added, "He could have hurt you bad, or worse."
Felicity thought for a moment about retrieving her mother's silver and her father's snuffboxes. Yet to steal from a carpetbagger made her no different than the vile man lying at her feet.
The man groaned, the guttural sound spurring Felicity into action.
"Let's get away from here, Jeremiah, before the boat leaves without us."
As they made their way to the docks, Felicity mentally calculated the money she'd accumulated over the past few days. With the sale of her expensive English riding saddle, the silver to the carpetbagger, and the money she'd received for a good portion of her wardrobe of finely made dresses, she was still short by almost half the asking price. Perhaps she would be able to reason with Mr. McCade. Perhaps she could make some sort of a deal.
It would have been so much easier, she reasoned, if Mr. Dobbins hadn't been so stubborn about allowing her access to her inheritance, insisting she wait until her father's return from New Orleans. And, no matter how much she'd argued, the crotchety, old banker had steadfastly refused. He'd even threatened to wire her father if she persisted. Defeated in her original plan, Felicity had taken instead to dealing with less than scrupulous merchants and downright unprincipled thieves, making her — in her own estimation — not much better than them. The only saving grace to the whole sordid affair was the fact that soon Jeremiah and his family would truly be free.
* * *
Jake McCade lifted his foot to the railing above the River Maiden's stern and lit a thin cheroot, its tip glowing bright red in the dark night sky. His cargo hadn't yet arrived, and he felt the first stirring of concern. He'd asked permission to dock at this unfamiliar port under the guise of making some repairs. To overstay his welcome would draw attention he didn't want or need. He'd give them twenty minutes and then ...
"Excuse me, are you Jake McCade?"
Jake raised his head. A young boy of no more than fifteen or sixteen stood before him.
"Can I help you, kid?"
"I'm here to arrange passage for some of my friends."
The boy coughed out his words, and Jake had to stifle a chuckle at the lad's attempt to hide the obvious changes in his voice.
"You're the one who contacted me?" Jake asked.
"Yes." The boy shuffled nervously from one foot to the other and kept his gaze narrowed on the ship's deck.
"And, just where are these friends of yours?"
The boy let out a shrill whistle and a long line of blacks came out from behind a nearby building, first the men, then the women and, finally, the children. They arrived carrying their worldly belongings in a few large satchels, a handful of worn burlap sacks and, surprisingly, one rather expensive-looking steamer trunk. Jake counted heads as they came on board.
"I count four men, six women, and sixteen children. At fifty bucks a head for the adults and twenty for the children, that comes to eight hundred and twenty."
"That's right," the boy confirmed, "how much extra for me?"
"I don't take spectators on these runs, boy. The agreement is to take the blacks North to freedom. From the looks of them, they don't need a caretaker, unless it's to help them read."
"My friends all know how to read, Mr. McCade. And write."
"Then they don't need you, do they?"
"I've got the money."
"Which you are going to give to me."
* * *
Felicity thought about the money in her pouch. "I'll give you half now and the other half when we get to St. Louis."
"Sorry, kid, but the deal is money up front."
"How can I be sure you won't drop them off at the first port north of here?"
Jake McCade's gaze darkened, and Felicity took a step backward to escape its menace.
"I don't do business that way. If I give my word to do something, I do it."
"Is something wrong?" Jeremiah asked, moving closer to where they stood.
"No," Felicity assured him, "everything's fine. Mr. McCade and I are finalizing our transaction, that's all." Turning to face the assembled group, she suggested, "Asha, why don't you and Calley take the children to their rooms and tuck them in for the night? We don't want anyone to see us congregated here on Mr. McCade's boat."
The women and children went down the closest passageway. The men, save for Jeremiah, made their way out of sight as well.
"As I was saying, Mr. McCade, I insist on being allowed to go along." When he didn't comment, she added, "Half now, half when we arrive." With far more confidence than she felt at that very moment, Felicity held out her hand and offered him the money.
"I expect the men to help out whenever we dock," he told her, "and the women can work in the kitchen. I don't bring a full crew with me on these runs to keep expenses down, so everyone's expected to pull their own weight." Glaring at her he added, "Even you, kid."
Felicity turned toward the passageway, her escape stopped in its tracks when Jake McCade asked, "So, boy, what's your name?"
She hesitated, searching frantically for an answer she hadn't even considered. "Frank."
"Well, 'Just Frank,' as long as you and your friends are ready, we'll be pulling out."
Felicity glanced over the rail and scanned the narrow street bordering the dock. Grateful no one had yet discovered her escape, she turned back to Jake McCade. "We're ready whenever you are, Mr. McCade."
Felicity climbed into the big feather bed in one of the larger staterooms, Jeremiah's two smallest children nestled beside her.
"Will you read us a story, Miss Felicity?" little Mary asked.
"The one about the rabbit and the fox," Samuel added.
"I will read to you if you promise not to call me Miss Felicity, especially in front of Mr. McCade."
"But that's your name," Mary said, confusion evident in both the tone of her voice and the frown on her chubby brown face.
"She's pretendin'," Samuel whispered knowingly, "like when we play pirate."
"Oh, goody," Mary giggled, "I love pretendin'."
Long after the children fell asleep, Felicity tossed and turned, her nerves on edge. She felt a certain dread over what she'd done. Yet, she also felt excitement, anticipation. At long last, Jeremiah and his family would know the true meaning of freedom. They'd be able to come and go as they pleased, just as Mr. Lincoln's proclamation had promised. If only her father had accepted the fact that his slaves were free men and women, she wouldn't have had to go behind his back to school them. She wouldn't have had to sneak them away in the dead of night like a band of thieves, with herself along for the ride.
* * *
Jake made one last survey of the upper deck before heading to his cabin. The air had cooled considerably over the past hour or so, the breeze picking up to a stiff fifteen knots. Just enough that the River Maiden rocked gently on the otherwise calm water and could lull him into a much-needed sleep after a long and exhausting day.
He undressed and slid between the bed linens, the crisp sheets cool against his naked skin. Closing his eyes, he waited for sleep to claim him. Instead of coming quickly, as he'd expected, Jake found himself replaying the arrival of his latest cargo. A motley group, he noted, led by a scrawny kid who'd not yet seen the sharp side of a razor. However, they could read. And write. Or so Just Frank had said. Over the past six months, the River Maiden had made numerous trips like this one to help move the freed slaves. This was the first group, however, that had come with their own chaperone.
Jake rolled over and punched the feather pillow into a more agreeable shape. Whatever the boy's reasons for tagging along, it didn't make any difference to him. All he cared about was reaching St. Louis on time. The winter weather had broken early and some of the other riverboats were already taking on passengers for short excursions. The River Maiden needed to get back to the business for which she was built.
Ever since he and his cousin Matt had agreed to go into business together, Jake had been the one to operate the River Maiden while Matt stayed in Vicksburg to run the family hotel. With the impending birth of his first child, Matt had wanted stability and a permanent place to call home.
Jake on the other hand, loved the bright lights and beautiful women and the excitement that came with running a gambler's haven. If he concentrated hard enough, Jake could almost hear the clatter of the chips as they fell, the clink of the whiskey glasses, and the laughter of the wealthy passengers. If he inhaled deeply enough, he could smell the pungent aroma of expensive cigars.
The season promised to be a good one, what with the end of war and the resurgence of the waterways. Nothing, other than the Almighty, could stop him now.
Excerpted from Gambling on Love by Nancy Fraser, Patti Shenberger, Erin Molta. Copyright © 2013 Nancy Fraser and Patti Shenberger. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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