Read an Excerpt
How many men were hunting her by now?
Antoinette Sutton pressed her cheek against the coach's musty upholstery, keeping her eyes shut as the Wells Fargo stage to Leadville rattled up the mountain trail. She struggled to breathe evenly, couldn't seem to get enough of the thin air into her lungs. Sweat trickled down her face and stained the dress she wore, a stylish French sateen in solid black. Widow's black.
Her stomach lurched with every nauseating sway of the coach. And her fever was getting worse. Annie sank her teeth into her lower lip to hold back a moan.
She felt sick enough to throw up on the nice, shiny kid boots of the lady squeezed in beside her. And not just because of the smothering crush of nine passengers. Or the stale smells of horse sweat and miners who didn't bathe often enough and the macassar oil the men used on their hair. Or the annoying buzz of conversation as her fellow travelers chatted oh-so-pleasantly about crop prices and how nice the August weather had been and the latest silver strike up in Central City.
Annie remained silent, tenderly, protectively resting one hand over the gentle swell of her belly, hidden by her full skirts. Questions circled and preyed on her mind like merciless vultures.
How many men were on her trail? A handful? A dozen? Or every sheriff and marshal in five states?
How long would they keep tracking her?
And how far?
Trying to swallow the cold lump of fear in her throat, she opened her eyes and lifted the flapping leather curtain on her left. Glaring sunlight blinded her for a second. She blinked, dizzy and half afraid she'd see a rider chasing the stage with badge flashing and gun drawn, like in the dime novels her brother used to love.
Instead she saw only air: empty, heaven-blue sky above and below. The stage had climbed high into the Rockies since leaving Trout Creek this afternoon. A ledge fell away sharply beneath the wheels, revealing the jagged green tops of pine trees trailing down the mountainside into a gulch so deep she couldn't glimpse the bottom.
Annie shuddered and let the curtain fall. After a week of jostling along old Indian trails and back roads day and night, she hated the West. Hated every hot, dirty, wild, godforsaken mile of it. Only once before had she been west of the Missouri River, on a visit to Abilene when she was six, with Mama, to look for Papa.
She knew she was the very picture of what folks out here called a "tenderfoot." But she needed to disappear--and this was the best place to do it. She had to keep going, changing stage lines, changing directions, covering her trail. Had to put plenty more miles between her and the law back in Missouri. She couldn't stop to rest, to wait until she felt better.
Or to grieve.
James. Annie shut her eyes again, curling up in her corner of the darkened coach while the other passengers kept chatting and laughing.
James, oh God, I'm so sorry.
Even now, she longed for his company and his comfort. Even now. Droplets of sweat mixed with the trail dust on her cheeks, and felt like tears. But they weren't tears. They weren't. Her mama had raised her not to be any man's fool.
If only she had listened.
One of the wheels struck a rock and the stage bucked like a wild horse. Annie clung to the padded seat, trembling. The uncomfortable feeling in her stomach was getting worse--and it was different from the queasiness she had gotten used to the past weeks.
She tried to tell herself it was only this awful case of the ague. Or the meager food that had been available when they stopped for lunch in Trout Creek: fried cornbread with slices of fat pork and gritty coffee that had tasted like it was three days old.
But she was beginning to fear it was something else. Something far worse.
Annie's heart seized up like it would stop beating. Like it would break. She had never been the sort to pray much, but she began to pray now, silently, desperately.
For the precious new life growing inside her.
"You feelin' any better, Mrs. Smith?"
Annie lifted her lashes and regarded the young soldier seated across from her, his blue uniform so new it all but gleamed. He was on his way to Fort Collins, he had told them all proudly, had just turned twenty and been promoted to corporal.
Twenty. He seemed merely a boy. How could he be the same age as her?
"Yes, Corporal Easton." Annie shrugged, managing a smile and yet another lie. "I'm feeling a bit better, thanks."
She had told none of them about her delicate condition; her fellow passengers were only worried about her ague--mostly about catching it.
As she started to turn away and close her eyes again, the boy offered her his canteen and a smile. "You thirsty, ma'am?"
Annie hesitated, her natural wariness sharper than usual. She wasn't used to people showing her kindness. But then, these folks didn't know who she was.
Or what she had done.
With a grateful nod, she accepted the canteen and drank, spilling some when the coach rocked over a deep rut in the road.
A gentleman with gray sideburns down to his chin and a southern drawl offered her his handkerchief. "How far did you say you were going, Mrs. Smith?"
Annie tentatively took the offered square of snowy linen and lowered her gaze, dabbing at her ruffled bodice, worried by the way everyone's attention turned to her.
She hadn't said where she was going. Had barely spoken ten words to anyone. Dared hope the black dress and wedding ring would be enough to explain her silence and why she was traveling alone. She didn't want to make any kind of impression; she wanted to be as forgettable as the fake name she had chosen.
Besides, she was no good at polite conversation, hadn't spent much time with people like these.
Nice people. Respectable people.
"Montana Territory," she said at last. "I have family there." More lies. If any lawmen managed to track her this far and ask her destination, she wanted them galloping off in the wrong direction.
"I'm surprised they didn't come east to meet you," the whiskered man commented. "The northern territories are a might unsettled yet. There's still trouble with the Indians, sometimes even here in Colorado. A lady traveling alone must have a care."
"Indeed," the skinny matron next to Annie said with a disapproving cluck of her tongue, hooking her arm through her husband's. "Why, it's dangerous venturing into these mountains even with a well-armed escort. Colorado is fairly teeming with gamblers, claim-jumpers, speculators, and unsavory types of every ilk these days."
Annie barely listened as everyone launched into a discussion of the need for better law enforcement, now that the latest silver rush was attracting so many new arrivals to the Rockies. She splashed some water from the borrowed canteen onto the borrowed handkerchief and used it to cool her brow, feeling too light-headed and sick to pretend interest while they tried to persuade her that this was no place for a woman alone.
Don't you think I know that? she wanted to shout. She hadn't planned to come here. There hadn't been time to think, back in St. Charles, on that horrible afternoon when she had run through the rain.
Had run in a blind panic beneath thundering clouds and lightning that stabbed the red Missouri earth. She had stumbled into a clothing shop and pointed out the mourning dress and paid cash and left quickly--before the proprietor could wonder why she kept her blue silk cape clutched so tightly at her throat.
Then she rushed around the corner and changed in an alley out back, leaving the cape and her bloodstained clothes and her entire life behind in the mud.
Somehow she made it to the train depot--only to realize her mistake. James owned half the railroads in Missouri. The conductors and porters all knew her from the trips she'd taken with him--to New Orleans and Philadelphia and a luxurious suite at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City. She couldn't escape by train.
Soaked to the bone, sobbing, she'd hurried to one of the livery stables instead. And ten minutes later, had a six-dollar seat on the first stage out of town, headed west.
"And the winters," one of her traveling companions was saying with a shudder. "The territories really ain't a place for any lady who--"
"Thank you." Annie interrupted the chorus of advice being directed at her. She handed the soldier his canteen, keeping the wet handkerchief pressed to her hot skin. "Thank you, but I'm sure I'll find Montana to my liking."
The skinny matron next to her pursed her lips and raised a disapproving eyebrow. "I assure you, you would be much happier elsewhere, Mrs. Smith."
Shaking her head wearily, Annie closed her eyes and sank back against the upholstery. Happy. She would never be happy again. Had lost all right to be happy.
But she would give her child a good life, she vowed. A safe, healthy, good life. There was enough money in the leather satchel under her seat to make sure of that. They would live in San Francisco, or maybe Virginia City. In a real house, just like regular folks. And they would be decent and respectable. And they would be together, like a mama and her child should be.
That thought almost made her smile, in spite of everything. Just for a moment.
Then the image shattered in a burst of hot pain that knifed through her. She gasped and slumped forward, her jaw going slack.
"Oh, God." It twisted through her again and she doubled over. "Oh, God, no."
* * *
He would find her, by God.
That thought had burned in his gut and robbed him of sleep for days now. Five days. Or was it six? U.S. Marshal Lucas T. McKenna rubbed his eyes with the heel of his palm, his other hand resting near the Colt .45 Peacemaker holstered on his hip. The smells of smoke and hot iron choked the afternoon air, the train engine a few yards away belching great clouds of steam and ash toward the Missouri sky.
Time had unraveled into one long, shapeless blur since the telegram had reached him in Indian Territory, urgently summoning him home to St. Charles. He could remember only moments of the past week. Fragments, like shrapnel: the cold that had drenched him when he read the words on the small white piece of paper. The endless clacking of metal wheels over railroad tracks. Dozens of unfamiliar faces milling around rooms draped in mourning. The awkward reunion with his sisters. A gleaming coffin with brass fittings.
And the quiet sound of James's children, crying.
Lucas clenched his jaw and glared down at his worn boots, trying to push it all away. He had to treat this like any other assignment. Subdue the need for retribution that burned him hotter than the August sun high overhead.
Hunt down the coldhearted bitch who had murdered his brother.
The train's bell clanged as the whistle made its long, mournful call. A conductor shouted "All aboard!" and the last few passengers spilled out of the depot, clutching their baggage. The stationmaster hustled along with them, handing out the last few tickets as people hurried across the platform to catch the 1:15 to Jefferson City.
Lucas forced himself to wait patiently, as requested. He yanked at the open neck of his shirt, unknotted his kerchief, and mopped sweat from his face before stuffing the sodden piece of cloth into the pocket of his black trousers. He had almost forgotten how hot St. Charles could get in August--hot enough to make him feel like he was standing in the middle of a frypan.
Finally, the last passengers were on their way and the stationmaster rushed over to him. "Sorry for the delay, Marshal McKenna. But like I said, I'm not sure I can help you. I talked to the town constables last week--"
"I was hoping maybe you'd remembered something more since then," Lucas said, loud enough to be heard over the noise. "Anything that might be useful."
The man's spectacles reflected the sunlight as he looked up to meet Lucas's gaze. "Well, sir, like I told the constables, it was raining that day. Hard enough to drown a man. None of us could see much, what with everyone ducking their heads in that downpour. And the women were all decked out in traveling cloaks, carrying parasols and such--"
"And no one remembers seeing this woman?" Lucas dug the wanted poster out of his pocket. "Dark, curly hair she always wears long and loose. Brown eyes--"
"Oh, I know her, Marshal. Saw her many a time." The man shook his head as he handed the paper back. "Mr. McKenna always treated her real well--first-class Pullman compartment, champagne, caviar. We all called her Lady Antoinette," he admitted with an apologetic smile. "It's just, with the rain and all, I can't say if she was here that day, and I can't say if she wasn't. Wish I could help you. It's a damn shame what happened to your brother. He was a good man."
Lucas nodded curtly and folded the paper, wanting to crush it in his fist or tear it into pieces. A damn shame didn't begin to describe what had happened, and good didn't begin to describe his older brother. James hadn't deserved to die, cut down at the age of thirty-two. Shot by a woman to whom he had shown only generosity and compassion.
Too much compassion; if James had had one flaw, it was that. "If you hear anything," Lucas said, sick of repeating those four words, uttered so often the past days, "I'm staying up at the house for a while."
"I'll pass along any word, Marshal, I surely will. Something's bound to turn up. Everyone in town admired your brother. And the local constables are doing all they can."
Lucas shook the man's hand and left, keeping his opinion of local law enforcement to himself. In the week since the murder, they hadn't even been able to pin down how "Lady Antoinette" had left St. Charles, much less what direction she had taken. But at least they hadn't protested when he stepped in to help with the investigation.
His boot heels echoed on the wooden platform, then on the steps that led down to the street. After talking to the constables, he had personally questioned the witnesses to the crime: James's servants, who had never seen Antoinette at the house before that evening, when they overheard her arguing with their employer in the study.
James had been telling his mistress he never wanted to see her again. Then there had been a gunshot. Then Antoinette had been seen fleeing the grounds, covered in blood--with a sackful of money taken from James's safe.
Obviously the old saying was true: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
And where was she now? Lucas wondered as he stalked back toward town. Living high on the hog in some fancy hotel back East? Spending the money she had stolen from James on ball gowns and jewelry down in Natchez? Decorating the arm of some rich señor in Mexico? Enjoying a sea voyage to Europe?
The possibilities made bile rise in his throat. One thing had become clear: "Lady Antoinette" might have the morals of an alley cat, but she was smart. Lucas had hunted down some of the most wily criminals ever to plague the territories; he hadn't expected this light-skirt to be much trouble. But she had apparently planned her escape as carefully as the crime, because she had managed to evade the law, so far.
But not for much longer.
Lucas stopped at a street corner, next to a three-story brick building that had the name JAMES MCKENNA, ESQ. lettered in gold on the door, half-covered by a sign that read CLOSED. He felt his throat tighten, remembering how proud he'd felt of his older brother the first time he'd seen this place--the offices that took up an entire block, the business James had established and managed with such skill. Soon it would be sold.
His head lowered, Lucas moved toward a lamppost and leaned against it, arms folded as he tried to think. From below the brim of his hat, he watched carts and carriages and townsfolk crisscross, kicking up red Missouri dust as they went about their lives on this sultry afternoon.
Every time he returned to St. Charles, it astonished him how much the town had changed since he was young; it had been little more than a scattering of cabins and cornfields in the woods back then--like the one where he and James had done the backbreaking work of plowing and planting beside their father . . . and challenged each other to races when they hauled feed and water for the animals . . . and snuck off to the swimming hole together on summer afternoons.
Until the war. Everything had changed after that, when marauders began stalking Missouri looking to drown their bitterness in blood and fire.
Lucas spat in the dirt, forcing the memories away, not wanting to feel the fresh grief and loss that knifed through him. He had to keep his mind on the hunt. Plot his next move.
He was supposed to meet up with his deputies back in Indian Territory as soon as possible--and the Territorial Governor wouldn't look kindly upon him taking an extended leave to pursue a personal vendetta. Not when he and his men were finally closing in on the Risco gang after two years of work.
When the telegram about James had arrived, Lucas had told his deputies to go on without him, but ordered them to stay together and stay coolheaded. To a marshal, emotion could be as dangerous as any bullet or bowie knife.
He lived by that adage, had lived by it for so many years he no longer had to think about it.
But he thought about it now, as he turned and headed down the street toward the telegraph office, to send a message to his men. He needed more time here in St. Charles, had more people to question, had to find some lead he could follow. He wouldn't be returning to the territories. Not yet.
Not until he saw Antoinette Sutton pay for what she had done.