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Sign of the Wolf
By Elaine Barbieri
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2007 Elaine Barbieri
All right reserved.
Meredith Moore glanced with dismay at her fellow travelers as she walked through the decrepit train depot where the first leg of her journey had delivered her. The eldest of Letty Wolf's daughters, she had always considered herself the most confident and determined of her sisters, yet her step slowed uncharacteristically as she neared the Texas train that would deliver her to the state of her birth. She had disembarked from the luxurious, well-equipped rail car that she had boarded in New York City a short time earlier, only to be faced with a noisy hoard of male travelers in such direct contrast with the elegantly dressed, carefully groomed, and courteous gentlemen of the city that they seemed to have emerged from another time. Almost without exception, they were bearded and mustached, dressed in ragged garments with revolvers stuck in their belts. Doors slammed behind them, and-seemingly to a man-their luggage consisted of heavy, dirty bundles that they carried without visible sign of strain. Their talk was loud and stormy, and clouds of blue tobacco smoke seemed to follow them wherever they went.
Unable to miss their conversation as two of the men passed by, Meredith heard references to the Sioux and Pawnee Indians inhabiting Nebraska and the Dakotas, and to their anticipation at returning. She breathed a silent sigh of relief that thosemen were not headed her way.
Meredith entered the shabby Texas rail car, deliberately ignoring the glances she received from her fellow passengers as she settled herself in a seat. It did not miss her notice that for the most part, her fellow passengers were male, and were also hairy, unwashed, bearded, odoriferous, and armed to the teeth. It annoyed her that the few well-chaperoned women in the car appeared as shocked and as disapproving as the men to see her traveling alone.
Meredith raised her chin determinedly. She was accustomed to disapproval. She accepted without a trace of conceit that she was beautiful, and she was no novice to the speculative glances that fact alone so often stimulated. Aside from the conservative but fashionable gray traveling costume she wore, the attention she drew with her uncommon coloring was not unusual, either. Although she knew very little about her father, she knew she had inherited her vivid coloring from him-thick hair as bright as a copper penny, and eyes that glittered an amber gold. Her naturally brown brows and lashes were thick and dark, and she could only assume that her own delicate features were a feminine version of his because she did not resemble her mother in the least. Small as a child, she had matured to the unusual female height of almost seven inches past the mark of five feet, with a multitude of womanly curves in between.
Yes, she was beautiful, but Meredith knew how little being beautiful really meant. Her mother was beautiful. Her sisters and she bore little resemblance to either their mother or each other, but they were equally beautiful, which she feared would only add to their problems as they sought the paths of their futures.
Thoughts of her sisters brought momentary tears to Meredith's eyes. She missed them, but they had carefully planned the steps they were taking. She wished she could protect them from the difficulties they were bound to encounter, but protecting each other was not currently what their quests were all about.
Their quests were important to them-so important that she, at twenty-one the eldest of her sisters had waited patiently, teaching at the boarding school where her mother had placed her until her youngest sister reached the age of eighteen and was old enough to join the sisters in making a mature decision on the direction of her future. Her sisters and she had grown close when their mother placed them in the care of nannies, almost excluding contact with them while they were young. Perversely, they had grown even closer when their mother put them in different boarding schools in an attempt to separate them. Meredith had allowed their mother to believe the separation plan had worked, but, in reality, her mother's attempt to keep them apart had been the final straw. She and her sisters had stayed in contact secretly. They had visited each other over the years without their mother's knowledge, and the bond between them had flourished. Yet they had remained strong-willed enough to realize that the closeness between them could become a crutch. It had taken them several months after removing themselves from their mother's care to finally formulate their individual plans, and they were each resolved to follow through.
Meredith raised her chin in silent defense of the choices she and her sisters had made. She knew they were doing the right thing in trying to find their own paths-because Grandfather had told her so.
The plan was pretty simple, after all. They had decided to separate for a year to find their individual directions. They would keep in contact with each other by means of a general post office box at a central location where mail could be picked up or directed to them. They would then meet after the year came to an end to assess their paths from there.
Meredith could not help but frown at the thought of Johanna's intention to travel west to make a success of her father's dream of striking it rich. Justine's goal to become a world-renowned entertainer also seemed a bit unrealistic to her. Yet in both cases, her sisters had made their decisions and she accepted them.
To Meredith's mind, however, she was the only one of her sisters who was striving toward a truly reasonable goal. She would travel to Texas to discover her roots and learn more about the past that her mother had so steadfastly refused to discuss. She knew that was right for her-because Grandfather had approved.
Grandfather-who was a secret known only to herself.
Grandfather-who was an enigma she was determined to solve somewhere along the way.
Meredith's heart jumped an excited beat when the rail car jerked suddenly forward, interrupting her thoughts with a metallic groan and a cloud of grainy smoke as the train snapped into motion. A surge of breathlessness unexpectedly assailed her, as she became fully aware for the first time that all the years of careful planning that had brought her to this time and place were over.
Her quest had begun!
"You can't be serious!" Trace Stringer looked at Robert Pinkerton with disbelief. He had been summoned to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency's New York office for his new assignment, but couldn't now believe his ears. "You couldn't possibly have accepted a job like this."
"I wouldn't have asked you to come in if I hadn't. Alexander Pittman of Wallace, Pittman, and O'Brien came here personally a few hours ago to discuss this job. It's a legitimate case, and it will be a lucrative commission for our company."
"I'm not a babysitter, Robert."
"These women are adults, not babies."
"A rich, spoiled mother asking us to find her rich, runaway, and equally spoiled daughter? What else would you call it?"
"Listen for a few minutes, and I'll tell you." Robert's round face reddened as he continued directly. "Letty Wolf has three daughters."
"I've heard of Letty Wolf. That would be three daughters with three different fathers, of course."
"That's right, but whether they're legitimate or not is neither my concern nor yours."
Trace could feel his face cloud with annoyance. He didn't like the sound of this assignment. He had no patience for the petulance of rich children. He had seen too many men and women in the far West who worked hard every day with their children alongside them as they struggled to make a success of meager circumstances-laboring without complaint just to keep their dreams alive. His own parents had been one of those couples. He had been proud to share their dreams until fate took a deadly hand, and he had no respect for those who didn't have the sense to be grateful to be spared the heavy sacrifices that life often demanded.
"Are you listening, Trace?"
Robert continued. "It seems that Miss Wolf's daughters declared themselves legally free of her and disappeared from the boarding schools where she had placed them on the same day that her youngest daughter became of age. That was almost a year ago. In anger, Miss Wolf countered by writing her daughters out of her will-but she has recently come to regret her hasty action. It is her intention to reinstate her daughters to their rightful place in her will if they will agree to meet one stipulation."
Trace mumbled, "If I had a mother like Letty Wolf, I'd run off, too."
"Trace ..." Squinting a deadening glance at him, Robert continued. "In the will that she wrote in anger a year ago, Miss Wolf left the bulk of her estate to Mason Little, the nephew of an ... intimate friend who was also Justine's father. Evidently Mason resumed contact with her after his uncle died." Robert added almost in afterthought, "Aware of the fellow's reputation, I can only assume he made sure to get to know her again when his aunt started to become wealthy."
"Smart fellow, huh?"
Choosing not to respond, Robert continued, "In any case, Miss Wolf, who is still a beautiful woman, I might add, will have a fortieth birthday in a little less than a year. She proposes that if her daughters contact her before that time, she will reinstate them appropriately in her will. In that case, she will leave Mason Little a substantial sum instead of the bulk of her fortune as the will now states. If they do not contact her, the bulk of her estate will revert to Mr. Little."
"So she's extorting her own daughters."
"Miss Wolf wants her daughters back, Trace, and it's her money. What we need to find out now is whether her daughters will consider it worthwhile to return."
Trace raised his brows.
"Right ... well, as Alexander Pittman explained it, the part that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency is to play concerns Miss Wolf's desire to dispatch three detectives to find her daughters-one detective assigned to each daughter-to make sure that each one of them is made aware of the provisions she has set up. I'll take care of the assignments for the other two daughters, but I'm assigning the eldest one to you."
"What am I supposed to do with her?"
Robert did not hide his annoyance. "You find her first, then inform her of the stipulations of her mother's will. If she agrees to see her mother, you will escort her to see Miss Wolf. If she doesn't agree, you will get a signed statement to the effect that she was made aware of the stipulation her mother made and declined it."
Trace was momentarily silent. "You said, 'You find her first.' Am I to assume that she's no longer in the city?"
"Assume whatever you want. Letty Wolf doesn't know where her daughters are. It's your job to find one of them."
"You're a detective, Trace. You've done this kind of thing before. I want to add that I think you're particularly suited to this assignment because you were born in the West, as were Miss Wolf and two of her daughters." Picking up a slender folder on his desk, Robert handed it to him and said, "This is all the background information we have on Meredith Moore."
"Letty's eldest daughter. None of the daughters carry her name. They changed their names back to that of each of their fathers."
Robert snapped, "You've handled this type of case before-children separated from their parents."
"Not exactly." Drawing himself up to his full, muscular height, Trace slipped the folder under his arm and said, "But despite my reservations, I'll find Meredith Moore for you, Robert. You can depend on it."
Trace did not bother to add that he'd do the job because he owed Robert that much-and more-but that he'd then wash his hands of the spoiled brat and bid a final farewell to the agency. Only then might he finally resume the life he now realized he was meant to lead.
Tipping his Stetson in a familiar gesture, Trace walked out of the office. He stopped just beyond the door and opened the folder. Surprised to see a picture of a frowning, freckle-faced, red-haired girl who was approximately ten years old staring back at him, he pushed the office door back open. When Robert looked up, he held up the photograph and said, "Is this the most recent photograph you have of Meredith Moore?"
"It's the picture her mother provided, so I can only assume it's the most current one she has. I admit that's strange, but ..." Failing to complete his remark, Robert added more softly in afterthought, "Meredith doesn't look like a particularly happy child, does she?"
Inwardly groaning, Trace slid the photo back into the folder and left without responding.
A late morning sun shone brightly as Meredith Moore stepped down off a dusty stagecoach in Winsome, Texas. She had been a passenger in the uncomfortable, cumbersome vehicle since dawn when her train journey came to an end. Since that time, she had ridden for countless miles on bumpy, rutted, dust-ridden roads before finally arriving at her destination.
Incredulous at the driver's attempt to throw her carpetbag down to her from atop the stage, Meredith waved him off and started slowly down what appeared to be Winsome's main street. Her heels clicked hollowly on the board sidewalk as she scrutinized her surroundings, and she frowned at the sound. The false-fronted buildings and small stores, the majority of them only a single story high, were archaic; and the unpaved, deeply pocked street was a step back in time. In short, the small Texas town appeared barely civilized, so different from the elaborate edifices and cobbled streets of New York City that it boggled the mind.
In retrospect, she supposed she should have been prepared for the likes of Winsome after first transferring to the ancient Texas train; yet somehow, she had not expected to arrive at a place where even the women dressed plainly in homespun dresses and common bonnets that totally ignored fashion. Appearing just as lax in appearance, the men generally wore rough trousers, plain cotton shirts with bandanas in lieu of ties, boots that were obviously hand-tooled but were too shabby to be acceptable, and wide-brimmed Stetsons. Even more unacceptable to her eye were the heavy gun belts most of the men wore strapped around their hips, bearing nasty-looking revolvers and enough ammunition to support an army. Her thoughts returned to the rough individuals headed for Nebraska and the Dakotas that she had seen in the train station as she had prepared to board the Texas rail car. Those men had worn revolvers, too. She could not make herself believe all that armament was necessary.
Another assessing glance confirmed that transportation also seemed to suffer in this far corner of the country. It took her only a moment to see that rough wagons took the place of stylish buggies, and that horses of an indiscriminate breed were more common than the well-groomed steeds that traveled New York City streets. She couldn't help but chuckle, however, at her sudden realization that the average man apparently spent more money on his horse's saddle than he did on his own clothing.
"Howdy, ma'am. Nice day, ain't it?"
Meredith raised a haughty brow at the drawling fellows who doffed their hats courteously to her as she passed, revealing hair plastered to their scalps with sweat. She pretended she did not hear their laughter when she raised her chin and continued on without replying.
Fixing her gaze on the bank in the distance, Meredith walked faster. She and her sisters had cautiously saved over the years with an eye toward futures free of their mother's influence. After she withdrew sufficient funds from the draft she had forwarded there, she would be on her way-and she was anxious to begin. She knew that her mother had lived briefly in this general area. She was determined to learn more about the man who had fathered her, and about the family her mother so steadfastly refused to discuss.
Meredith's thoughts returned again to her beautiful mother. Except for the fact that her mother had rarely missed a payment in financing her boarding school education, Letty was a virtual stranger to her. Strangely, she wondered what her mother was doing now.
Excerpted from Sign of the Wolf by Elaine Barbieri Copyright © 2007 by Elaine Barbieri. Excerpted by permission.
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