Romancing the West
By Beth Ciotta
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Beth Ciotta
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-1-932815-92-4
Chapter One Territory of Arizona 1878
"You understand that this is top secret."
Seth Wright reflected on the official document signed by U.S. President Hayes. The one he'd tucked into the pocket of his black frock coat alongside his new reading spectacles.
Sequestered in a private room of George T. Becker's bath and hair dressing emporium, he lit a Cuban, sank deeper into the steaming water and glanced at the man soaking in the adjacent washtub. The smooth-talking politician who'd summoned him to Phoenix to celebrate a mutual friend's birthday. At least that had been the pretense. "The appointment or my association with you?"
"Both." Athens Garrett flashed a practiced smile then shifted his green gaze to the rough-hewn table wedged between the brass tubs. He ignored the wooden box stocked with premium cigars, reached for the crystal decanter of brandy. Pouring liquor into two snifters, he laid out specifics. "The Peacemakers Alliance is a pet project of President Hayes's. PMA's mandate is to investigate sensitive or hard-to-solve cases pertaining to taming the west."
Seth absorbed the idealistic dictate with a wry grin. He'd been tangling with outlaws for years. He'd ridden with the Texas and Arizona Rangers. Served consecutive terms as County Sheriff. He'd kicked a canyon-full of miscreant ass. Regardless, ruthless cutthroats prevailed. No wonder, what with all the crooked lawyers and judges mucking up frontier justice.
The mere thought of those shifty pricks made him mad as a peeled rattler. Outraged by the recent outcome of a murder investigation, he'd opted not to run for reelection as Sheriff of Pinal County. It wasn't the first time a guilty man had been declared innocent. But it was the last time he aimed on witnessing such blatant injustice.
Yesterday, he'd walked away from the jailhouse pondering his future. He needed a break. Or a change. Something to reawaken his passion for the law. For living. Frustration was only the tip of the iceberg. Boredom had wormed its way into his being and he'd be damned if he'd roll over, accepting complacency or cynicism as part and parcel of growing older.
Today, he'd been offered the position of elite government agent.
Maybe it was the cure for what ailed him.
Optimism buzzed through his veins for the first time in months.
Then his daddy's voice rang in his ears, compromising the rush. Take it slow, son. Get the facts.
"I thought Hayes was concentrating on reforming the South."
"The President is concerned with this nation as a whole," Athens said. "Last year he focused on encouraging economic development in the arid regions. I assume you're familiar with the Desert Land Act."
Seth puffed on the cigar. "Nice plan in theory. Six-hundred-forty acres of land to anyone willing to pay and promising to irrigate the land within three years. Heard tell there were a goodly number of fraudulent proofs."
"Possibly as high as ninety-five percent."
"So Hayes's nose is out of joint."
"He's disappointed." Athens dragged a forearm across his moist brow. "But it's the outlaw mentality, the senseless loss of life that's driven the President to initiate PMA."
Seth detected a flash of anguish in the other man's eyes before he looked away. He didn't know Garrett well enough to ponder the reason. During the awkward silence he soaped up his hair and reflected on the man with the plan, a man of vision-President Rutherford Hayes. Known for being honest, levelheaded, and a man of action, he'd earned Seth's respect by striving to secure rights for people of color in addition to warding off a border war with Mexico through negotiations with that buzzard-ass dictator Diaz. The more he thought about it, the more he could imagine Hayes cooking up the Peacemaker Alliance. Still, something didn't sit right. Mainly, the man to his left.
Seth exhaled a plume of smoke and studied Garrett through wary eyes. "How do you figure into this?"
"I've been appointed acting Director of PMA. I'll be your primary contact. Codename: Fox."
He raised a brow at that. Fox implied shiftiness, trickiness. Someone prone to scheme and outmaneuver. Unlike his brothers, Rome and Boston Garrett, two Wells Fargo detectives who maintained order with flying fists and lead, Athens was a diplomat. A man who settled arguments with brains, not brawn. For sure and certain, not with a gun. Smart as a steel trap, his reputation was that of a silver-tongued do-gooder. A former citizen of California with a background in law, he'd climbed the political ladder to State Senator. A widower and the father of two young children, most folks had pegged the unshakable mediator as the state's next governor. Now he was supervising an agency whose mandate was to tame the west?
It wasn't the Peacemakers Alliance that gave Seth pause, but the man Hayes had put in charge. Athens Garrett lacked experience in the field. Grit. The man sipped brandy and had the vocabulary of a Bible thumper. Taking orders from a man who substituted dad-blame-it for goddammit made Seth's ass twitch.
He snuffed the cigar. "Thought you moved to Phoenix to be near your sister."
"To escape the political dust-devil so you could spend more time with your kids."
"That's right. When the President heard I was relocating to Arizona Territory, he offered me a supervisory position with PMA."
Seth drained his drink in one swallow. The President wouldn't entrust this job to a man he didn't deem capable. Maybe he knew something about Athens's character beyond the reported. "Just so I'm clear, PMA doesn't exist." He set aside the glass and indicated the two of them with a flick of his hand. "We don't exist."
"Not officially, no."
He reached for a shaving mug and brush and whipped the contents into a lather. "I'm listening."
Athens nodded. "President Hayes is fed up with the lawlessness west of the Mississippi. He wants the citizens safe, the outlaws handled. Cattle rustlers, road agents, train robbers, guns-for-hire, and such."
"What about the Rangers and local and federal law enforcement?" Seth asked as he scraped a straight-edged razor along his jaw.
"Special cases call for special skills. Peacemakers are authorized to act creatively to ensure success."
His motions slowed. "Creative a codename for illegal?"
"Let's just say special rules apply."
A license to bend the law. He imagined his daddy, a by-the-books town marshal, rolling over in his grave. Then again Hershel Wright had never tangled with the likes of the cutthroat gangs and crooked politicians currently plaguing the west.
"Might entail undercover work," Athens continued. "Aliases, disguises. Figure you could assume another man's identity convincingly?"
He thought about it, shrugged. "Reckon I can do whatever I set my mind to."
"You an arrogant man, Wright?"
Seth glanced at the man alternately sipping brandy and scratching soap through his hair, blond, and in need of a trim ... much like his own. "Why me?"
"The President wants the best of the best. Your history with the Rangers and local law enforcement speaks for itself. So happens you and I are acquainted."
"Because of Josh." Athens's brother-in-law and Seth's best friend. A former Ranger and the current Sheriff of a boomtown called Chance. His enthusiasm swelled at the thought of working alongside Joshua Grant, a man he trusted with his life. "You bringing him on?"
"I'll be utilizing his expertise in an advisory capacity. Right now Josh is focused on wife and family."
"Seein' his wife is your sister, I'm guessing you're pleased with his priorities."
"Let's just say he's inspired me to adjust my own."
Seth didn't ask how. Wasn't his business.
"So are you in?"
"Tame the west, huh?"
Seth poured a celebratory round. "When do I start?"
"Tomorrow. Your first assignment involves relaying a message and relocating a VIP."
Not exactly what he had in mind. He tamped down his disappointment and scrubbed his arms and pits with the bar of aromatic soap. After this he'd go out on a spree, starting with Fletcher's pleasure palace. He hadn't been with a woman in over two weeks, what with personal and professional obligations. No wonder he was wound tight. "What about those hard-to-solve cases you mentioned?"
"Who said this assignment is simple?" Athens traced his finger around the rim of his glass. "Ever heard Paris mention her friend Emily McBride?"
The swift change of subject surprised him. "Sure." He swung his thoughts around to previous conversations with his best friend's wife. The longer Paris lived in Arizona Territory, the more she reminisced about her childhood friend. "I know she misses Miss McBride." The woman lived a world away in northern California.
"Those two grew up tight as ticks. Now they keep in touch via the U.S. postal service. A few days ago Paris received a letter from Emily, canceling an upcoming visit. She was supposed to be here for the birth of the baby. I expected my sister to be upset, but she's been unnaturally agitated and close-mouthed on the matter. Josh prodded. I prodded. All we got was that Emily's in a financial bind."
"Sorry to hear that."
"She's had a rough time of it lately. Lost her ma a few months back. Her pa not long after. Now this." He angled his head as if pondering the matter. "Emily's a smart girl. Fanciful, like Paris, but she wouldn't squander the family savings. I'm thinking she trusted someone she shouldn't have, made a bad investment. She believes the best in the worst of people."
"So send her some money."
"Tried. But she's a proud one." Leaving his brandy unfinished, Athens climbed out of the tub and commenced to drying and dressing. "Emily's misfortune got me to contemplating my own life. I've been selfish," he said, without looking at Seth. "Not wanting to remarry because I'm still in love with my wife. Or rather, the memory of my wife." He fastened his trousers, donned a tailored shirt and vest. "Thing is, Zach and Zoe need a mother. Emily needs a protector. I've always been fond of her. Shy, but good-hearted and intelligent. We'll make a good match."
Seth hauled his body out of the tub and nabbed a towel. He felt for the man-a widower with two kids-but damn. "So my first assignment is to fetch your intended bride?"
"President Hayes is counting on me to organize and supervise PMA. I'm counting on you to deliver Emily safely to me so I can concentrate on doing that. When you think about it, this matchmaking venture is of national importance."
Seth suppressed a grunt. Wouldn't want Fox thinkin' he was unpatriotic.
"I've penned a proposal of marriage. I'm hoping, after due considera-tion, that she'll agree."
He jerked on his shirt, poleaxed by what he was hearing. "You mean you haven't discussed this with Miss McBride? Don't you think she'd like to hear the proposal from you?"
"I can't leave Phoenix or my children. Not now. If she balks, you'll have to plead my case. Explain the advantages of a practical, amiable marriage." He shrugged on his frock coat, his actions and tone matter-of-fact. "Rumor has it you can talk any woman into anything. I'm counting on you to persuade her."
"Am I to take it she's not as fond of you as you are of her?"
"She's fond of Zach and Zoe and she likes me just fine. Problem is she fancies herself in love with Rome."
"Been moony-eyed over him since she was a kid. Rome has no interest in her, trust me."
Seth jammed his feet into his boots, cursed a dull throb at the base of his skull. "This has disaster written all over it."
"I have faith in your abilities." Athens slicked back his hair, pocketed the comb. "Another thing. Paris is to know nothing about this."
"PMA or Emily?"
"Both. At least for now. I don't want her to get her hopes up in case you come back empty handed."
Seth smirked. "I thought you had faith in my abilities."
"I also have faith in fate intervening and sabotaging my life."
"You a bitter man, Garrett?"
Fully dressed, they exited through the rear door of the bath and hair dressing emporium. They agreed to meet up for dinner to celebrate Josh's birthday. Naturally, Paris would be there as well as Zach and Zoe.
"Remember," Athens said, "if Emily comes up in conversation, you're to say nothing of your impending mission."
Seth didn't figure bride-fetching counted as a mission, but held his tongue. He shook hands on the matter, and the two men parted. Avoiding talk of Emily this evening should be simple, so long as the men controlled the conversation. He wouldn't be lying to his best friend's wife, just omitting information of national importance. Besides, once he returned to Arizona Territory with Emily, Paris wouldn't mind that she'd been kept in the dark. All she'd care about was that her friend was no longer thousands of miles away. She'd be happy which meant Josh would be happy. Emily and Athens's problems would be solved and Zach and Zoe Garrett would have a ma.
By the time he rounded the corner and hit Washington Street, he'd convinced himself that he was on a mission of good will, ensuring the happiness of Emily and the Garretts, and the wellbeing of the honest, hardworking folk of the west. This time next month he'd be kicking criminal ass Peacemaker style.
Excerpted from Romancing the West by Beth Ciotta Copyright © 2007 by Beth Ciotta. Excerpted by permission.
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