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The only difference between the women on the street corners and Kate Wells was that she only had to sell herself to one man.
His passing was a mixed blessing. Despite the scandal and her resulting fall from grace, Kate did regain her freedom as a result of his murder. And she much preferred her current work to the duty she had to perform in the marriage bed. Both kept her up at night, but she didn't feel the need to wash after working in the milliner's shop.
Tonight she had a full moon to guide her as she walked home along the American River.
Unfortunately, the moonlight and the lanterns from the riverboat also served to illuminate things that were best shrouded in darkness. The wide street was not as deserted as it should be at this time of night. Saturdays were always this way, men with money in their pockets and mischief on their minds.
Kate slipped a hand into her bag. As she hurried on, she groped about for the only useful gift her husband ever gave her. At last her fingers gripped the cold, pearled handle of the Derringer. She hunched around the weapon as if she guarded it instead of the other way around. Her shoulders ached from her labors. There weren't enough hours in the day to earn a living. Between the boardinghouse and the milliner's, she worked sixteen hours a day and was still falling behind.
She glanced at the three women on the corner. Their bare shoulders and seductive postures advertised their business, and she wondered what they made in an hour.
One woman gripped the elbow of a scrawny man as she met Kate's gaze. It was like looking in a mirror. The confident pose, the false smileKate saw past all that and focused onthe desperation glittering in the woman's eyes. She recognized the despair and it frightened her down to her bones.
Kate wasn't that hopeless yet, but it was a near thing, a nightly battle with the invisible line of respectability. Thus far she was only the widow of a thief. There were worse things.
Her gaze fixed on the crates just inside the alley. Steady gasping interspersed with grunts left little doubt as to what occurred just beyond her sight. She hugged her shawl tighter and hastened on. Her husband had made such noises when he pushed himself inside her. She squeezed her eyes shut fighting to bury the memory.
As she approached the next alley, she heard a different sort of sound. Something crashing and then cries of glee.
"That's got him!" someone shouted.
She glanced between the buildings and drew up short at the scene. Two men and a woman were rifling through the pockets of a large man who struggled to rise from the packed earth.
Kate's first impulse was to scream for help, which she did with gusto. This caused two burly men to stop offloading the steamer and to turn their heads in her direction. They came at a run. With this backup she charged into the alley herself. The villains looked so startled they simply stared.
The young woman held a black leather billfold.
Kate showed her pistol, thrusting her arm out before her like a sword. "Drop that right now!"
The woman didn't, but instead turned and fled down the back end of the alley and out of sight.
The men held their ground.
"What are you going to do with that, deary?" said one man taking a step forward.
"Stop or I will shoot you."
He didn't. She did.
The sound of the gun report was amplified by the narrow space, echoing off the walls. Her attacker fell to the ground, clutching his thigh. His partner lunged at her, slapping her weapon away and seizing her wrist. His fist cocked back. Kate had time only to close her eyes and brace for the blow, which she heard but did not feel.
Opening her eyes, she found the man she had defended now standing beside her with the thief lying at his feet. She stared in wonder at this man who had knocked his attacker unconscious with a single blow.
He drew his pistol then and aimed just as the two dockworkers arrived.
"Saw it! Saw the whole thing!" one shouted.
"Get that one," shouted the other. Kate turned to see the wounded man hopping around the corner as the two deliverymen charged past her after the fleeing man, taking their lantern with them.
Kate found herself alone in the alley with the man she had tried to rescue, and his unconscious attacker. The only light came from the lanterns on the steamers behind him so she could not see his face. But he was tall and broad with light brown hair. He wore the clothing of a laborer, a dark work shirt of some heavy weave and denim jeans. Over the lot he wore a long duster, as if he had ridden in on horseback. Had he come here with the woman?
Kate felt trapped as she faced him. He nudged the fallen man with his boot. The thief showed no flicker of movement, beyond the rise and fall of his breathing, so her companion holstered his sidearm and took a step in her direction. He swayed as if drunk, but she smelled no whiskey. He stooped and retrieved her silver, double-shot pistol. When he straightened, he had one hand pressed to his head and the other about her gun. He offered her the pistol in an open palm.
"Thank you, miss."
She plucked her derringer from him and was stuffing it into her bag when his hand fell heavily on her shoulder. She screamed and then realized that he was not attacking her, but rather falling.
Kate managed only to guide his fall while she crumpled beneath him. As he lay half-across her lap, she stared at his attacker's boots, noting the tacks of one heel showed through the worn leather. She adjusted her position so his head rested on top of her thighs. It was in the process of moving him that she discovered a lump on the back of his head the size of a darning egg.
She prayed he had not split open his skull as she searched for any sign of blood, but found none. She pushed his thick hair back from his pale face. "It's all right now. I'll take care of you."
His eyes fluttered open and he stared up at her with childlike wonder.
He blinked. In the dim-filtered light, she first noticed his neatly trimmed side-whiskers, slightly darker than the hair on his head. He wore no beard, which allowed her to admire the clean sweep of his strong jaw and the fullness of his bottom lip. It was parted slightly as he drew long breaths. His thick, high brows lifted above gentle eyes and a broad straight nose. All in all, he was an exceedingly handsome fellow. His stare did something to her, making her skin tingle. It was a feeling long forgotten, the feeling of a girl attracted to a boy without knowing the heartache that would bring. Yes, this one was handsome and that made him dangerous. She straightened her spine and chided herself. She, of all people, should know better.
He whispered something, but she could not make it out, so she lowered her ear closer to his lips.
She listened, but still could not understand. She hovered over him, inches from his lips.
"Lie still now until help arrives." She hoped it would arrive and glanced in the direction that the two dock-workers had vanished.
He lifted a hand and threaded his fingers in her hair like a lover and drew her down toward him, kissing her on the lips.
She was so startled she could not think and then it was too late to think. His mouth slanted over hers, coaxing and stirring. Her stomach fluttered at this tantalizing moment of forbidden excitement.
The sound of the rapid strike of boot heels brought her to her senses and she drew back. His eyes drifted closed, but now a devilish smile curled his lips.
She stared down in mute horror at what had just happened, and then Kate blinked up at the swinging lantern held by one of the men who had come to her aid.
He stooped before the thief. "Still breathing." He glanced up at her. "How's yours?"
She stared down at his reclining body and the bulge evident in his britches and flushed hotly. Had the man not seen her kiss him? She cleared her throat. "He's swelling, his head, I meanhis head is swelling, from the blow." Trying to recover from her blunder, she pointed at the lump. "Just there."
The man squatted. His large hands groped the unconscious man's scalp. He raised his eyebrows and she knew he had found it. He gave a low whistle.
"That's a beaut."
"Where is your partner?"
"Brother," he corrected. "With the one you clipped. Dragging him back, but I wanted to be sure you was all right."
Kate smiled her gratitude. "Thank you for coming when I called."
He shrugged. "Lady in need." Then he looked at her, really looked, from her bonnet to the hem of her gown. "Why you out so late, miss? If you don't mind my askingthis is no place for a lady."
"I work for a milliner, extra hours, extra pay."
He nodded, wiping his big hands on his trousers. "I'm doing much the same myself, except the milliner part."
They shared a smile. It faded and died leaving a long uncomfortable silence.
"Should I go for help? Call the authorities?" he asked.
"Yes, I think so."
He turned to the would-be thief who still lay sprawled on the ground. "He don't look good." He stooped before the man. "Jaw's busted. Breathing though."
He hauled the man to his feet and tossed him over his shoulder with an ease Kate found frightening.
"You'll be all right?"
"Yes, of course."
Still he lingered, looking back up the alley perhaps for his brother before glancing back at her.
Kate smiled and patted her reticule. "Still have a shot left."
The man nodded his approval and lowered the lantern, leaving them in a pool of light. "My brother'll be along directly."
"I shall keep watch for him."
He strode off, moving quickly for one of such girth. The unconscious man flopped like a dead carcass on his back.
The fellow resting on her lap stirred and she returned her attention to him in time to see his eyes open. He stared up at her with beautiful pale brown eyes, as warm and inviting as sunlight through amber glass.
"Welcome back," she murmured, flushing as she wondered if he would recall the kiss.
He tried to sit, flinched and then fell back panting and pale.
"My head is splitting. What happened?" He spoke without opening his eyes. "I heard a woman scream."
"That was me."
He cast a sidelong look at her. "No, miss. Not you. I'd sure remember that pretty face."
"Dunno. She didn't say " He flushed. "We got out here and two men grabbed her. They were " His words fell off as he glanced at Kate.
"Go on," said Kate, trying to appear unruffled but feeling her face grow quite hot.
"I got her clear of them andthat's the last thing I remember."
"Perhaps she was the one who struck you." Unable to help herself, Kate stroked his forehead.
"Thanks for taking care of me, ma'am."
"I think you rescued me."
His eyes widened. "Did I?"
"You struck that other man after he attacked me. Don't you recall?"
He shook his head in dismay, then winced at the movement. She gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze and immediately regretted it. Her touch revealed just how solid and masculine he was beneath that overlarge coat. She drew back her hand and his smile faded.
"They're going for help." She stared, admiring his fathomless eyes. "Just rest now."
"Wouldn't move on a bet," he said, relaxing back into her lap.
"Are you dizzy?" she asked pushing his hair from his forehead and checking his eyes. They were clear and bright, with creases at the corners quite free of the tan that covered his face. This man spent his time out of doors.
"If I am, it's from looking at you."
She smiled at the pretty flattery. The man was a born charmer. For the first time, she considered what a picture they made in the alley, huddled together like sweethearts at a church picnic.
She tried to draw her hand back, but he captured it and planted a kiss on her gloved palm. She could not even feel his lips, but the thrill of his action made her stomach flutter. He did not stop at that but found the pulse point just between the edge of her glove and her sleeve and kissed her there.
Kate gasped and their eyes met, locked. She noticed the small gold speckles in his wide brown eyes and decided they looked more like amber flecked with mica.
After the bump on the head he'd suffered, she could not find fault. It made people funny. She had seen a neighbor boy fall from his back steps and for two days he wept at the drop of a hat. He was a brave boy, too, and not prone to tears.
"You saved my life," he whispered.
She laughed. "I could not even save your wallet."
He released her and patted his coat where his wallet should have been.
She withdrew her hand, chagrined that she did not ask him to release her and only withdrew now because he had recalled his losses. The man was distracting, to say the least. It was almost as if she was the one who had been struck on the head. Kate wondered if he could sense the wild beating of her heart.
"I'm sorry about your money."
He lifted a hand in dismissal. "More where that came from."
How very cavalier, she thought, for a man who had nearly worn through the knees of his trousers, but she kept silent on that matter. Perhaps he had drunk most of his pay before he was waylaid.
"Is your head aching?"
He closed his eyes a moment and nodded. "Stomach is bad, too. Feels kind of whoopsy." His eyes met hers. "Might be just 'cause you're sitting with me."
She laughed. "You are a devil."
"And you're an angel."
Kate returned his smile, feeling her heart beating in her throat. What was going on here?
He was mooning after her. She knew she needed to squash this immediately. She didn't encourage gentleman callers and saw no point in beginning a journey she had no desire to complete.