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Harney County, Oregon, 1918
Obsession was the way in which madness lay.
Despite that annoying truth, Gracelyn Riley couldn't stop scanning the train platform for Special Agent Striker as she disembarked. People bustled everywhere, stirring up dust. Nearby, a mother held her toddler close while passengers crowded around her. Boards groaned and voices rose as people scattered, looking for their luggage and rides.
The whistle shrieked a warning to those lagging on the platform. The train had stopped briefly at this desolate Oregon county station before continuing on to California.
Gracie had hesitated traveling to this vast and untamed land until she'd learned Special Agent Striker lived here. He was the only reason she could endure going to a place as dreary as this. Though her parents considered traveling alone unsafe, even in these modern days, the threat of influenza loomed larger than their worries and prompted them to send their only daughter west. Had the fear of grippe not been so severe, her parents would surely still have her strapped to their sides.
Once she'd learned Striker made his home here, her plans changed. She'd finagled the promise of a coveted position as a staff writer with the Woman's Liberator if she could procure an interview with the elusive agent. Sweet independence was within her grasp.
Unfortunately, she didn't see among the passengers anyone who looked dangerous enough to be the mysterious Striker.
She stood on the platform until the crowds thinned and the train rolled away on a cloud of steam. Squinting, she turned a slow circle. Though several wagons parked nearby, they all looked full and their drivers busy.
Where was her ride?
Gathering her things, she walked to a bench situated outside the station door and sat. Her trunks remained inside. No doubt when the driver arrived, he'd go in and retrieve them. In the distance, mountains jutted into a never ending sky. Sparse landscape surrounded her.
She shuddered and pulled Jane Eyre from her Dotty bag.
A shadow fell over her. "Ma'am, is this seat open?"
She looked up. The man beside her waited for an answer. With the setting sun behind him, the broad brim of his cowboy hat shadowed his face and hid all but his straight nose and strong chin.
"Yes, it is." The bench at the other end of the platform held a family whose kids shrieked and laughed. Smiling, she moved to the side for the stranger. She remembered seeing him on the train, a lone figure in a back seat. Aloof and unapproachable.
Some exotic, spicy scent filled the air as he sat, and she slid him a look. He was rather handsome, though not in the way she was used to. This man wouldn't fit in at a fancy Boston dinner party. His broad shoulders and tanned skin spoke of a ruggedness to which she was quite unaccustomed. These attributes intrigued her.
What did he do for a living? For the first time since embarking on this wretched trip, her fingers itched to jot down observations on the small pad of paper she always kept nearby.
The stranger must have felt her scrutiny because he took his hat off, placed it in his lap and eyed her in return.
A jagged scar traveled from above his right brow, down his cheekbone to the hairline near his ear. Striker was also rumored to be scarred, though she'd not heard of where in particular. No doubt Striker bore many evidences of his heroic feats. Her gaze traced the puckered skin on the stranger's face. Perhaps she should've felt embarrassed to have been caught staring. But after the emotional upheaval of being forced to leave home and left to flounder alone on a loud, smelly train, the tiny flicker of interest flaring within caught her by surprise and loosened her tongue.
"How do you do, sir?" She held out her hand in the way she'd lately observed others from the barren West do.
He didn't shake her hand. Instead, one thick black brow rose.
Gracie struggled to keep the polite smile on her face as she withdrew her unshaken hand. Shame flooded through her. So much for skirting her gentle upbringing. She fiddled with the folds of her dress suit.
The stranger's gaze was dark, his eyes shards of obsidian. His strong jaw emphasized narrow cheekbones while that wicked-looking scar slashed angrily across his features. Not a face as perfect as Hugh's or Father's, but overall, quite an interesting study. He stared at her in such an odd way, cold and intent. Her throat clenched.
Say something. Anything.
"This grippe outbreak is horrible, isn't it? My parents are sending me to stay with an uncle until the influenza clears up," she blurted.
His scar crinkled with his forehead but he still said nothing.
"I don't mind the trip, though," she continued, "because I've heard Special Agent Striker has been spotted in Burns several times."
"You heard wrong."
He had a wonderful voice. Deep and masculine. Warmth spread across Gracie's face. "I'm quite sure I have not heard wrong, sir. My sources are reliable. I assume you're familiar with Striker and his many feats?"
The man's mouth compressed into a thin line. "Do you usually hold conversations with strange men? Don't have much common sense, do you?"
"Sir, I'll remind you that you sat beside me. I have plenty of common sense, thank you very much." Her shoulders stiffened. "And I do have protection."
"Who?" The stranger made a pretense of looking around, then he pinned her with a dark look.
"God protects me."
"God." The stranger's eyes glinted. "If someone snatched you right now, no one could stop him."
Interesting words. Gracie peered more closely at him, determined to find out more. "If you're referring to Mendez, the notorious kidnapper of women, I must inform you Striker will finish him for good. He's from the West," she added.
"No, Striker. He enforces the Mann Act of 1910 by chasing down kidnappers and criminals who perform evil deeds." Also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, it had been established to keep women from being transported across state lines for immoral purposes. "My uncle's home is near Burns, a town Striker is rumored to frequently visit. I'm hoping for an exclusive interview designed to prove his honor." And to jump-start her career.
"Honor?" The man beside her snorted. "From what I hear, the man's a skilled assassin."
"Rumors." Her lips clamped tight.
His fingers steepled. "You haven't heard of the Council Bluff skirmish?"
The fiasco had made only a few papers back East. Government officials didn't want the public to hear how the innocent died during a routine raid of an outlaw's hideout.
"Striker did what was necessary. He would never kill in cold blood."
The stranger's mouth twisted. "But, they say, that is exactly what he did."
"There's an explanation." Gracie clutched at the pocket in her skirt where she'd placed her news articles. "I intend to prove it."
She forced herself to relax and took a deep breath. A subject change was in order because she did not intend to argue with a stranger. Not about her beloved Striker. "Where are you heading, sir?"
He studied her, and she thought he might continue in the controversial vein, but he didn't. "I've been out of town on business, but I'm heading back to Burns. The name's Trevor Cruz."
"I'm Gracelyn Riley, of the Boston Rileys who came over years and years ago." She paused for breath before continuing. "That is quite the scar you have. Do you mind telling me what happened?"
When his eyes slit into narrow cracks, a sense of foreboding crawled down Gracie's spine. Perhaps it was a painful story and her question intruded on his grief. Mother's voice echoed in her mind: Always asking questions. Try to pretend to be a lady for once.
Mr. Cruz's expression cleared. "Got it when I was twelve, cutting some barbed wire for a fence. I sliced it wrong and the wire snapped up and got me right there." His finger rubbed the scar lightly. "Guess I was lucky not to lose my eye." He shrugged. "Never met a lady interested in my scar."
"Perhaps because it makes you look dangerous. In a good way," she added, not wanting to further offend him.
Her gaze lit upon his scar again and she frowned. "It's such an evil-looking scar that I rather thought something horrendous must have happened for you to get it. Something besides being cut with barbed wire."
"I'm sorry my scar is not more exciting for you, Miss Riley Gracelyn."
Had she spoken aloud? A horrible heat rushed through her body.
"That's okay," she stuttered, unable to meet what would surely be a disapproving gaze. If only her uncle would arrive. She searched her surroundings. The family was leaving and the approaching dusk whittled their shapes into shadows as they climbed aboard a wagon.
Two tethered horses waited at the edge of the platform. Their harnesses tinkled every few minutes with their movements and the sound reminded her of music. She turned to Mr. Cruz, hoping to distract him from her rudeness.
"Do you enjoy the music of Joe Oliver, from New Orleans? My father says he wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Oliver becomes known as the king of jazz, he's that good. Jazz is lovely, much better than classical, don't you agree?"
"I prefer the outdoors, ma'am."
"You do not enjoy music, Mr. Cruz?"
"Not jazz or classical. I like natural sounds."
"Oh, yes, nature's music. Do you mind explaining?" Might as well enjoy the conversation because there was no escaping the scourge of her thoughtless tongue.
Mr. Cruz's eyes bored into Gracie. Her chest constricted. This man affected her in quite a strange manner.
"I'm not articulate. You'd have to hear it to understand." His lips curved into a wry smile. "You're young."
"I am only twenty, it's true." She held his gaze. "But perhaps I understand your meaning."
Mr. Cruz's eyebrow rose. Did his raised brow mean he invited more conversation?
"I'm well acquainted with the sounds of nature. Before dawn I like to walk down to the ports. The fog is often thick and when I first reach the docks all I hear is the water pushing and lapping against the wooden posts. Then, slowly, the world awakes. Seagulls call to each other, high, piercing shrieks." Feeling faintly encouraged by the steady attention he gave her, she continued. "The sounds of fishermen drawing up nets and shouting orders drift to me. And the sun slices through the fog like a blade through fine silk. On those mornings, I am certain God is much more than the boring entity talked about in stuffy, silent churches. I am certain He's beautiful, and that He sings through his creation. Is this like the music you mean?"
He jammed his hat back on his head. "I was referring to nature, not God. Do your parents know you go out in the mornings like that?"
Bristling, she lifted her chin. "Mr. Cruz, must you keep talking as if I'm a child? Does it really matter what they know about? The point is, God made nature and we see His glory through it. If you enjoy the sounds of nature, you're really just enjoying an aspect of the character of God."
That annoying black brow of his arched again. Then he leaned back and tipped his hat over his face, as though dismissing her.
"Miss Riley," he drawled. "I don't believe in God."
A shocked gasp escaped Miss Riley's lips and for a moment Trevor thought he might be given the gift of silence. No such luck.
"Oh, Mr. Cruz!" From beneath the rim of his hat he saw Miss Riley's thick-fringed eyes widen. "How lonely you must be."
Trevor's jaw clenched. Time to stop being drawn in by her big brown eyes. He stood up, shoulders stiff.
"I think I'll get a paper. Pleasant meeting you, Miss Riley." He walked to the station's entry, turning back only once to see her staring after him, sympathy twisting her soft features.
Was he going to have to put up with her for months on end? He couldn't believe his senior partner, Lou Riley, had agreed to let his niece stay with them. And then he'd sent Trevor to check her out and make sure she wasn't followed back to the ranch.
Trevor bought a paper in the station and then returned outside. Miss Riley bent over a book and didn't appear to notice his exit. Quickly he turned on his heel and claimed the bench newly vacated at the other end of the depot. He cast Miss Riley another glance once at a safe distance.
A mass of flowing, dark hair covered her profile as she read. He groaned, wishing Lou had sent him on business anywhere else but here.
Truth was, he'd rather run the risk of contracting influenza than have to deal with some shallow socialite spouting nonsense about her nonexistent God. And there was her interest in Striker.
He settled back and opened the paper. It was unfortunate this Miss Riley knew so much about Striker's whereabouts. Maybe something had been leaked to the papers. He thumbed through but found nothing except a small paragraph focusing on Mendez's latest foiled kidnapping attempt.
His mouth quirked.
Mendez didn't have the success rate he used to. The knowledge almost made him happy. Almost, but not quite, because on the train a grizzled man had caught Trevor's attention. Though the man pretended to look out a window, Trevor had felt his perusal.
The watcher had looked familiar, the stink of an outlaw settling about his person.
Trevor rubbed his chin. The man had gotten off at an earlier stop, but that didn't keep his suspicions from being raised.
A clatter diverted his thoughts as a well-used wagon rolled up to the platform. Finally. He grabbed his traveling bag and sauntered over.
"'Bout time, old man."
"Stock got out." James, Lou's cowhand, among other things, grunted and took the satchel from Trevor. He nodded toward the station. "That the girl?"
They turned to look at Lou's niece. She must've seen James's arrival because she hesitantly picked her way toward them. Probably reluctant to believe she'd be riding in a wagon, if he had to venture a guess.
"While she's getting settled I'll grab some water for the horses," Trevor told James.