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If Adelaide Clarke had been asleep like a sensible woman, she wouldn't have heard the thump on her front porch. As moonlight streamed through her window, she stopped breathing to block out the smallest sound. Last week a shadowy figure had broken the same window with a rock. She had an enemy. Someone wanted to drive her out of Denver and the boardinghouse called Swan's Nest.
Trembling, Adie listened for another noise. None came.
The thump had sounded like a rotten tomato. The sooner she cleaned up the mess, the less damage it would do to the paint, but she worried about waking up her boarders. The women in her house would fill wash buckets and gather rags. They'd scrub the door with her, but all four of them would tremble with fear.
Whoever had caused the thump could be lurking in the dark, waiting to grab her. Adie had been grabbed beforenot in Denver but back in Kansas. Shuddering, she closed her eyes. If she'd been on speaking terms with God, she'd have prayed until she dozed. Instead she counted backward from a hundred as her mother had taught her to do.
Before she reached ninety, she heard a low moan. The timbre of it triggered memories of gutters, bruised ribs and the morning she'd met Maggie Butler. Adie knew about moaning. So did the women in her house. Mary had arrived bruised and angry in the dead of night. Pearl, thin and sick with pregnancy, had appeared at dawn. Bessie and Caroline, sisters from Virginia, had arrived in Denver on a midday train. Bessie had served with Clara Barton in the War Between the States and suffered from nightmares. Caroline had seen her husband lynched.
If a woman needed shelter, Adie opened her doorwide, just as Maggie Butler had once opened her door to Adie.
She slid out of bed and reached for her wrapper. As she slipped her arms through the sleeves, she looked at the baby in the cradle next to her bed. No matter how Stephen Hagan Clarke had come into the world, he belonged to Adie. Grateful he hadn't been colicky as usual, she touched his back to be sure he was breathing. He'd been born six weeks early and had struggled to survive. Maggie Butler, his natural mother, hadn't been so fortunate.
Comforted by the rise of his narrow chest, Adie hurried down the staircase, a sweeping curve that spoke to the house's early days of glory. She crossed the entryway, cracked open the front door and looked down at the porch, staying hidden as she took in a body shrouded in a black cloak. A full moon lit the sky, but the eaves cast a boxlike shadow around the tangle of cloth and limbs. Adie couldn't make out the details, but she felt certain the person was a woman in need. She had owned Swan's Nest for three months and word had spread that she rented only to females.
She dropped to a crouch. "Wake up, sweetie. You're safe now."
Her visitor groaned.
Startled by the low timbre, Adie touched the dark fabric covering the bend of a shoulder. Instead of the wool of a woman's cloak, she felt the coarse texture of a canvas duster. She pulled back as if she'd been scalded. In a way, she hadby Timothy Long and his indulgent parents, by the people of Liddy's Grove, by Reverend Honeycutt but not his wife. Adie hadn't given birth to Stephen, but she could have. Timothy Long had accosted her in the attic. If she hadn't fought him off and fled, he'd have done worse things than he had.
Moaning again, the man rolled to his side. Adie sniffed the air but didn't smell whiskey. If she had, she'd have thrown water in his face and ordered him off her porch. Before meeting Maggie, she'd supported herself by cleaning cafés and saloons, any place that would pay a few coins so she could eat. The smell of liquor had turned her stomach then, and it still did.
Adie worried that the man had been shot, but she didn't smell blood, only dirt and perspiration. Judging by his horse and the duster, he'd been on the road for a while and had come straight to Swan's Nest, not from a saloon in the heart of Denver. Maybe he was a drifter or even an outlaw on the run. Adie didn't rent to men and didn't want to start now, but her conscience wouldn't let her close the door.
Neither would her common sense. What if the stranger died? A dead body meant calling the sheriff. Calling the sheriff meant exposing Swan's Nest to scrutiny. A reporter would show up from the Denver Star. The next thing she knew, she'd be answering questions that came dangerously close to revealing the truth about her son and Maggie Butler. Calling for help, even the doctor, put Adie and her son at risk. She saw only one solution. The man had to wake up and leave. Using all her strength, she rolled him to his back. "Wake up!"
He didn't stir.
None too gently, she patted his cheek. Black whiskers scraped her palm, another sign of his maleness and time spent on the trail. She pulled back her hand. "Can you hear me?"
The circumstances called for drastic measures. She hurried to the kitchen, filled a glass with water, then opened the high cupboard where she kept smelling salts. She lifted a vial, picked up the glass and went back to the porch. If the ammonia carbonate didn't wake the man up, she'd splash his face with the water.
Dropping back to her knees, she tried the smelling salts first. They stank worse than rotten eggs.
Her visitor got a whiff and jerked his head to the side. His eyes popped wide, revealing dilated pupils and a sheen of confusion.
"Wake up!" she said again.
He looked at her with more hope than she'd ever seen on a human face. "Emily?"
"I'm not Emily," Adie replied. "Are you ill or shot?"
He groaned. "I'm not shot."
"Are you drunk?"
"Not a drop." His voice faded. "No laudanum, either."
Why had he added that? Thoughts of opium hadn't crossed Adie's mind. "Here," she said, holding out the water. "This might help."
He reached for it but couldn't raise his head. Setting aside her reluctance, she put her arm behind his shoulders and lifted. As he raised his hand to steady the cup, she felt muscles stretch across his back. His shoulder blades jutted against her wrist, reminding her again that he had a physical strength she lacked.
He drained the glass, then blew out a breath. "Thank you, miss."
She lowered his shoulders to the porch, then rocked back on her knees. "Who are you?"
"No one important."
Adie needed facts. "What's your name?"
"Joshua Blue." He grimaced. "God bless you for your kindness."
Adie's lips tightened. Considering how God had "blessed" her in the past, she wanted nothing to do with Him. "I'm not interested in God's blessing, Mr. Blue. I want you to leave."
"Blessings aside," he murmured, "thank you for the water."
Adie didn't want to be thanked. She wanted to be rid of him. "Can you stand?"
"I think so."
"Can you ride?" she asked hopefully.
He shook his head. "I came to rent a room."
"I don't rent to men."
"I'll pay double."
The money tempted her in a way nothing else could. Before meeting Maggie, Adie had been homeless. She valued a roof and a bed the way rich women valued silver and jewels. It had taken a miracleand Maggie Butlerto make Swan's Nest Adie's home. She owned it. Or more correctly, she owned half of it. Franklin Dean, the new owner of Denver National Bank, held the promissory note Adie had signed with his father. The older man had viewed banking as a way to help hardworking people, but he'd died a month ago. His son lacked the same compassion, and Adie had clashed with him the instant they'd met. They'd done battle again when he'd tried to call on Pearl against the girl's will.
Adie's blood boiled at the thought of Dean, all slick and shiny in his black carriage. She'd managed to keep up with her mortgage but not as easily as she'd hoped when she'd signed the papers. Her guests paid what they could and she didn't ask for more. So far, she'd made ends meet. She'd also served broth and bread for supper when the pantry ran low. No one ever complained.
A few extra dollars would be welcome, but she had to be careful. Swan's Nest lay on the outskirts of Denver, several blocks from the saloons but close to the trails that led to Wyoming and places notorious for outlaws. Before she rented a room to Joshua Blue, she needed to know more about him. Double the money could mean double the trouble.
"Are you an outlaw?" she asked.
Adie wrinkled her brow. Human beings lied all the time. Timothy Long had lied to her in the attic she'd called her room. Reverend Honeycutt had lied to the town. Maggie had been as close as a sister, but even she'd had secrets. Adie studied the man on her porch for signs of deception. In her experience, evil men bragged about their misdeeds. Joshua Blue had offered a humble denial. She took it as a good sign, but she still had to consider Stephen. He'd been born too soon and had almost died. She feared bringing sickness into the house.
"What about your health?" she asked. "If you're ill"
His jaw tightened. "If I had the pox, I wouldn't be here."
"But you fainted."
He grunted. "Stupidity on my part."
"That's not much of an answer."
Looking at his gaunt face, she wondered if he'd passed out from hunger and was too proud to admit it. She'd had that problem herself. Sometimes she still did. If she skipped breakfast to save a few pennies, she got weak-kneed and had to gobble bread and jam. How long had it been since Joshua Blue had eaten a solid meal?
"All right," she said. "You can stay but only until you're well."
"I'd be grateful."
"It'll cost you four dollars a week. Can you afford it?"
"That's more than fair."
"You'll get a bed and two meals a day, but your room won't be as nice as some. It's small and behind the kitchen."
"Anything will do."
Maybe for him, but Adie took pride in her home. She'd learned from Maggie that beauty lifted a woman's spirits. The upstairs rooms all had pretty quilts and matching curtains Adie had stitched herself. She picked flowers every day and put them in the crystal vases that had come with the house. She thought about brightening up Joshua Blue's room with a bunch of daisies, then chided herself for being foolish. She had no desire to make this man feel welcome.
"The room's not fancy," she said. "But it's cozy."
"Thank you, Miss?"
She almost said "it's Mrs." but didn't. Necessary or not, she hated that lie. "I'm Adie Clarke."
"The pleasure's mine, Miss Clarke."
For the first time, he spoke naturally. Adie heard a clipped accent that reminded her of Maggie. Fear rippled down her spine, but she pushed it back. Lots of people traveled west from New England. When she walked down the Denver streets, she heard accents of all kinds.
"Can you stand now?" she said to him.
"I'll see to it after I see to you."
His eyes filled with gratitude. "I'll pay for feed and straw. Double whatever you charge."
Adie had forgotten about his offer to pay twice what she usually asked. She felt cheap about it, especially if he'd fainted from hunger. "There's no need to pay double."
"Take it," he said.
"It's not right."
"It's more than fair," he insisted. "I'm intruding on your privacy in the dead of night. Please allow me this small dignity."
Adie saw no point in arguing. If Mr. Blue wanted to protect his pride with money, she'd oblige. "Let's get you into that room."
She stood and offered her hand. When he clasped her fingers, she felt strength inside his leather glove and wondered why he hadn't eaten. Grimacing, he pushed to a sitting position and put on his black hat. Using her for leverage, he rose to his full height and faced her. Adie's gaze landed on his chin, then dipped to the Adam's apple above the buttoned collar of his white shirt. She judged him to be six feet tall, rail thin and too proud to lean on her.
She let go of his hand and turned. "I'll show you to your room."
She stepped over the threshold, paused at a side table and lit a candle. As she held it up, Joshua Blue stepped into the room and took off his hat. The candle flickered with the rush of air. Light danced across his craggy features and revealed a straight nose that struck her as aristocratic. His dark hair curled around his temples and brushed his collar, reminding her of crows gleaning seed from her mother's wheat field. Everything about him was black or white except for his eyes. They were as blue as his name. In a vague way, his gaze reminded her of Maggie except her friend's eyes had been pure brown. Stephen's eyes hadn't found their color yet. Adie hoped they'd turn brown, a closer match to her hazel ones.
Blocking her worries, she led her new boarder down a corridor with green and pink floral wallpaper, through the kitchen and down a short hall that led to his room. As she opened the door, she raised the candle. The tiny space looked as barren as she feared. The room had a cot and a dresser, but mostly she used it to store odds and ends she donated to charity or tried to sell herself. Dust motes floated in the gold light, and a cobweb shimmered in the corner of the ceiling. Not even daisies would have lifted the gloom. A mouse scurried away from the glow.
Adie felt embarrassed. "I'll clean it out tomorrow."
"Not as dirty as I am," he said dryly.
She stepped into the room, lifted a rag from the pile on a trunk and swatted the cobweb. It broke into pieces and fell on her face. The vague sensation sent her back to the attic in the Long house, where Timothy Long had threatened to smother her with a pillow if she cried out. The storeroom had the same smell as the attic, the same dust and collection of unwanted things.
Adie wanted to run from the room, but Joshua Blue was standing in the doorway with his hat in one hand and his eyes firmly on her face. He'd trapped her. Or more correctly, she'd trapped herself. What a fool she'd been. Thanks to Timothy Long she knew better.
Show no fear. Stay strong.
The voice in Adie's head belonged to Maggie. As always, it gave her strength. She coughed once to recover her composure, then looked straight at Mr. Blue. "Do you need anything else?"
He looked pinched. "Do you have another candle?"