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Wolf Ridge, Texas, 1880s
Donovan Crow groaned as he dragged the pillow from his head and listened to the persistent knocking at the door of his hotel suite.
"Can't," his friend and business manager called from the other side of the door in the sitting room. "You told me to wake you after you'd had a full day's sleep."
"Changed my mind," he mumbled.
"You told me you'd say that, Van. Now I'm supposed to say, 'Get up and open the damn door and do it now!'"
Muttering, he levered himself onto the side of the bed. He raked his hand through his disheveled raven hair and forced himself to stand upright. Sluggishly, he reached for his breeches. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been this tired. The past few weeks of riding back and forth on the Higgins Stagecoach Express line to stop the rash of robberies had taken its toll on him. Come to think of it, he should have told his business manager to let him hibernate for a week.
"Van? Are you up yet?" his friend called impatiently.
"More or less," Van mumbled.
"Then open the blasted door. I have several telegrams and letters offering you jobs."
Van strode from the bedroom to the sitting area to open the door. Bartholomew Collier stared at him all too cheerfully as he invited himself into the suite. Bart was two years younger than Van. He stood five foot eight and had a wiry build and tireless energy. He had curly brown hair, a broken nose and pale green eyes covered by wirerimmed glasses. Van had saved Bart from disaster eight years earlier and in return he'd acquired a business manager and a friend for life.
Since then, Bart had handled the steady flow of paperwork that arrived at Van's hotel headquarters. He hadn't thought that advertising himself as a gun for hire would bring in so much business, but he was bombarded constantly with jobs.
"You look like hell," Bart observed as he plunked himself down in the chair, then dropped the stack of letters and telegrams on the table near the window.
"Thanks. Sure would hate to look better than I feel." Van strode over to pour himself a glass of water to lubricate his parched throat. He wished it were that easy to cure all the aches and pains caused by bouncing around on the inside of a stagecoach for days on end.
"Oh, almost forgot." Bart bounded up like a jackrabbit and sailed from the room. He returned two minutes later with a heaping tray of food, two cups of coffee and a bottle of whiskey.
Van arched a curious brow as he studied the food Bart set in front of him. "What time is it?"
"You mean what day is it?" Bart helped himself to a slice of bacon. "I let you sleep an entire day away, just as you requested."
Van took a cautious sip of steaming coffee. "That last assignment was a bitch." He narrowed his eyes at Bart. "Don't sign me up for that kind of assignment again."
Ever cheerfuldamn himBart grinned, revealing the slight gap between his front teeth. "You sure about that? Think of all the money you made and the attention you received for arresting those two stagecoach robbers."
Bart always insisted that Van demand high prices because he risked his life as a detective for railroads, stage lines and cattlemen battling rustlers. He also served as a personal bodyguard for the highbrows who traveled through wild country to reach their destinations on the east and west coasts.
Unfortunately, Van was rarely in town long enough to spend the money piling up. He had countless job offers but he didn't have much of a life. Not that many whites invited him to social gatherings. He was the dispensable mixedbreed scoutdetective and gun for hire who did his job, but was then quickly dismissed in favor of socially acceptable friends.
"Mr. Higgins is singing your praises to high heaven and you've received publicity in newspapers from Arizona to Louisiana. I should know," Bart declared. "I subscribe to several of those papers so we can keep abreast of what's going on. As for Mr. Higgins, he wants to pay you handsomely to keep you on retainer so you can put the fear of God in wouldbe outlaws trying to rob his coaches."
Van snorted sourly, then sipped his drink. "Can't stand that much confinement. What other jobs are waiting?" When Bart picked up a telegram, Van flung up his hand to forestall him. "And bear in mind that I am not taking any assignment until I catch up on my rest."
Bart shrugged and smiled wryly. For the life of him, Van couldn't imagine why his friendand Van didn't have many of them in white man's society, so he was careful not to offend Bartlooked so amused. Certainly nothing in their conversation accounted for it.
Bart tapped his forefinger against the stack of telegrams and letters. "You have a wide range of jobs to choose from. You can serve as a railroad detective to quell trouble on the line from Fort Worth to points east near the Mississippi River. Several robberies are occurring on the line. Also, you can become a personal bodyguard for some highfalutin politician who wants to inspect the Texas Ranger stations on the frontier."
Bart leaned toward Van. "Personally, I think the Ranger captain is trying to recruit you. He thinks if he can get you to show up at one of their headquarters, you'll cave in and finally agree to join."
"Not happening." Van munched on a slice of bacon, then slathered sand plum jellyhis favoriteon the toast.
"I'll be sure to quote you verbatim when I respond to the Ranger captain and the politician."
Van disliked the Rangers that had swooped down on the Kiowa and Comanche village where he'd grown up. His clan had been in constant conflict with the army and Rangers until the military had received orders to slaughter Indian horse herds and to march surviving tribe members to the hated reservations in Indian Territory. His mother's people had urged him to take advantage of the fact that his father had been a white trader and to avoid confinement by becoming white.
He had fled to begin indoctrination into white society. Now he had his freedom and he received exceptionally high fees for his skills as a hunter, tracker and shooter. But he refused to take any assignment for the Rangers or the military. They couldn't pay him enough to forget the heartache his people suffered at their hands. "Van?" Bart prompted.
Van shook off the unpleasant memories then sipped his coffee. "Sorry. My mind wandered. What were you saying?"
"Some large ranchers in Colorado are feuding with sheepherders who have slaughtered their livestock or so they claim. Five big ranchers formed a stock growers association and want to hire you to investigate. You'll receive the usual going rate of two thousand dollars for every conviction, plus reward money and traveling expenses."
Van munched on his tasty meal while Bart listed other assignments that would take him hither and yon, investigating a recent robbery in the noman'sland between Indian Territory, Texas and Kansas and a horse theft in the Texas Panhandle.
He didn't show much interest in any of the assignments until Bart said, "But I agree that you won't have time for too many new jobs since this telegram states that your fiancée will be arriving tomorrow on the five o'clock train from Fort Worth."
"MY WHAT?" Van croakedthen choked on his toast.
Bart leaped to his feet to whack Van between the shoulder blades until he caught his breath. "That's what I said," he remarked while Van wheezed and coughed. "You never mentioned a fiancée."
"That's because I don't have one," Van chirped, then guzzled his coffee to dislodge the toast from his throat.
"Apparently you have one now. Congratulations, by the way. When is the wedding?" Bart asked, and chuckled.
Van leveled a glare at his grinning friend. "I didn't hire you for your sense of humor," he muttered as he snatched the telegram from Bart's hand. Sure enough, the message stated that his fiancée would arrive tomorrow at five.
Bart plunked down in his chair, pushed his drooping spectacles up the bridge of his crooked nose and stared speculatively at Van. "I've always wondered what your fiancée might look like. Is she Indian or white?"
"I'm not the marrying kind. Not now. Not ever. I don't know who this charlatan is but I damn well intend to find out."
Bart's pale green eyes glinted with amusement as he gestured toward the plate of food. "You should keep eating. Keep up your strength for when the fiancée arrives."
Van gave Bart "The Stare" he was famous for. He'd backed down many a troublemaker with that chilly glare. His friend merely snickered.
"But what if she's really attractive and charming and you decide to keep her?"
"I can't imagine why anyone would pull such a stunt. This has to be a trick." Van shoved aside his plate and poured himself a tall drink of whiskey.
Bart jerked upright in his chair. "You're right! Maybe this has something to do with that threat" He sorted through the stack of letters on the table and then waved it in Van's face. "I didn't give this warning from the Harper Gang much thought. Outlaws always vow revenge after you wrap up an assignment that didn't end in their favor. But according to this letter the Harpers are out to get you for killing their little brother, Robbie."
Van slouched back in his chair to read the missive. It said:
Eye for an Eye. We will get you for this.
Three months earlier, Van had been on assignment to track bank robbers who'd split up. He'd hunted them individually. He'd been forced to shoot and kill the twentyfouryearold Robbie Harper, who'd had too much to drink and drew on Van in a saloon in a dusty, noname little town west of San Antonio.
The drunken fool had tried to make a bigger name for himself. Instead, he'd made the obituaries.
Van had apprehended Georgie Harper, age thirty, Charley, age twentyeight, and Willy, age twentysix. He had collected the hefty rewards, but he hadn't had time to recover the stolen money because a highprofile murder assignment awaited him. He'd told the bankers to let the Texas Rangers hunt for the missing money since they worked cheaper.
Unfortunately, the three Harper brothers had escaped from jail and now they were out for Van's blood.
"You must admit this ploy of an arriving fiancée would entice most men to show up at the railroad depot at five o'clock, if only to see what a fiancée of yours might look like," Bart was saying when Van got around to listening. "You're right. This has bushwhacking written all over it."
"My thoughts exactly." Van chugged his whiskey. "That's why you will meet the train and I'll reconnoiter the area to see if Robbie's vengeful kin are lying in wait."
"Me? " Bart crowed.
"You're the business manager, a practicing lawyer and my spokesman," Van teased as he rose to stare out the window that overlooked Main Street. "In the meantime, I'm planning to catch up on my missed sleep."
"That's it?" Bart huffed. "That's all the forethought you're giving this potential threat? But what if it isn't the Harpers who are using a distraction to lure you out and gun you down? What if you really have a fiancée that you conveniently forgot about?"
"I think I'd remember if I had a fiancée." He strode over to grab the tray and handed it to Bart. "That's not the sort of thing a man like me would forget."
Bart, with tray in hand, headed for the door. "Seems to me that plenty of men conveniently forget about fiancées and wives, in favor of visiting the harlots in Cardinal Row."
Cardinal Row was the red light district that Van and Bart visited occasionally, along with dozens of other local patrons. If Van had approved of blackmail schemes, he could make a killing off unfaithful husbands who frequented the local brothels. Maybe he'd take up that line of work when his lightningquick accuracy with pistols and rifles failed him in old age. If he managed to dodge the bullets with his name on them for the next thirty years.
Sighing tiredly, Van returned to the adjoining room and stretched out in bed. He'd need quick reflexes and sharp wits at five o'clock the next day if he planned to deal effectively with the bloodthirsty Harper Gang.
"A fiancée?" Van chuckled at the preposterous thought.
What the hell would he do with a fiancée? Leave her at his hotel headquarters for Bart to tend to while Van took one longdistance assignment after another? Anyway, what sort of female would want to attach herself to a mixedbreed with his reputation as a gun for hire? Women didn't line up to fill a position as his future wife. Never had. Never would.
"No woman with a lick of sense would consider marrying me. I'm the furthest thing from husband material that any man could get," he mumbled drowsily, then promptly fell asleep.
Natalie Blair, alias Widow Anna Jones, craned her neck to survey the landscape outside the train window. Anticipation bubbled inside her as she appraised Wolf Ridge. The Western community of three thousand residentsmore or lesssat on a rise of ground, surrounded by a treechoked creek known as Wolf Hollow. Even the possibility of this area jumping alive with wolvesand who knew what other vicious predators of the two and fourlegged varietydidn't diminish her excitement.
She had been riding the rails for four long, tedious days. She was about to reach the end of the lineliterallybecause the railroad was under construction across West Texas. This community was the jumpingoff point to launch her into her new life.
The train whistle jostled her back to the present and Natalie stood up to work the kinks from her back. She took her place in line behind an elderly gent who braced his arms against the back of the seats to steady himself as he moved slowly down the aisle.
Beneath the lacy black veil of her widow's digs she had donned to conceal her identity and provide protection, she smiled in triumph. She had succeeded! She had calculated, planned and outsmarted the conniving bastards trying to control her life. She would like to see their expressions of confusion and surprise when they realized she had vanished into thin air like a fleeting phantom.
Serves them right, she mused as she stepped onto the landing. She tapped the gold band on her left ring finger and told herself that her mother was up there somewhere, smiling down on her. This is for both of us, Mama, she thought as the conductor offered a hand to assist her down the steps.