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San Francisco, California
May 10, 1869
At precisely ten o'clock, Arabella Duprey, Queen of the Barbary Coast, left her suite. Accompanied by her eighty-pound white poodle, Toddy, she glided down the hallway then paused at the handrail that overlooked the elaborately appointed gaming hall below.
Oil paintings of nude women covered every square inch of wall space. One was of herselfa life-size portrait, commissioned five years ago when she bought out her longtime employer and became the madam of the Cock O' The Walk.
The enormous, gilt-framed portrait hung directly over the bar, where everyone was sure to see it. Could she help it if she wanted to be remembered throughout the years to come as a beautiful and desirable woman?
Toddy sat panting patiently at her heels as Bella watched the activities below: the croupiers dealing cards and spinning the roulette wheels, the pretty waiter girls serving drinks, the musicians tuning up. And the customers spending their money.
This was her domain and everything was running just as it should. She was proud to be the reigning queen of the Barbary Coast.
A shudder ran down her spine at the thought of how she had jeopardized her business and her futureall for the love of a man.
Sam Heart had played her for a fool.
In the five years since Bella had bought the Cock O' The Walk and become its madam, she had not invited any man to her bed. To do so would have been against the house rulesrules she had set in place to eliminate competition between her and her girls.
She had believed Sam when he pretended to love her. He had even gone so far as to offer her marriage.
But for her daughter, Bella might not have been so gullible.
Six years ago when she had sent Amy away to school, she promised herself she would use the school years to set up a different kind of life for her and Amy. A respectable life, away from the Barbary Coast.
Amy's letter had taken Bella by surprise. Her schooling was finished and she was coming home to help run the Cock O' The Walk. Where had the years gone? There was no more time.
Becoming Sam's wife was the answer to her prayers as well as a dream come true. Except that it was all a lie.
Bella closed her eyes and gripped the rail as she gave up a silent prayer of thanks that she had overheard him boasting about her. He'd been bragging that he would win a beta bet that he could sweet-talk her into taking him to her bed. Thank God, she had discovered the awful truth before it was too late. Taking a deep breath, she steeled herself for the night's events. Carefully lifting her skirt out of the way, she started downstairs to greet her customers.
Tonight was the night. Everything was ready. There was no turning back.
Tonight Sam Heart would learn that no one played Bella Duprey for a fool and got away with it.
Tonight he would pay with the one thing he held most dear. His ranch. Heartbreak Ranch.
Once she obtained the deed, she would turn the management of the Cock O' The Walk over to her case keeper and barkeep, Howard Evans, who had been her trusted friend and confidant since she began working at the fandango palace twenty years ago. By tomorrow morning, when Amy's stage arrived, she would be packed and ready to leave for their new home and their new lifecourtesy of Sam Heart.
Always cool and collected, Bella was surprised to be overtaken by a giddy rush of nervousness tinged with excitement. But habit allowed her to smoothly commence her nightly ritual. Upon reaching the landing, she paused and nodded to Howard. At her signal, he hit a small, brass Chinese gong at the end of the bar. The room immediately fell into an expectant hush.
"Good evening, gentlemen!" Howard's voice boomed over the crowd, although it was quiet enough to hear a pin drop. "It is my pleasure to present your hostess the incomparable the one and only Bella Duprey!"
She smiled with satisfaction as every man in the room looked up at her. She knew what an arresting sight she made, dressed in a new crimson satin gown, her signature color, now highlighted by the chandelier hanging directly over her head. Her gaze swept the room until she was certain she had everyone's undivided attention. Then, she licked her lips with the tip of her tongue and took a deep breath, knowing how the movement swelled her breasts.