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The Marriage Agreement
By Carolyn Davidson
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMississippi River North of Memphis Spring, 1878
The messenger stood in the shadows beneath the overhang. The deck was deserted, except for the silent man who watched and waited; but waiting and watching was what he did best. It was his job. And he was very good at it.
The tall man who strolled casually toward him did not change direction, yet the messenger sensed he'd been spotted. And that was all right. It was because of Gage Morgan that he'd come to this place. So he watched as Morgan leaned with languid ease against the rail of the steamboat, looking across the muddy waters of the Mississippi toward the faint lights of a house.
Lifting a slim cigar from his jacket pocket, Morgan held it to his mouth and, with a soft scratching sound, set fire to the match he carried. He puffed once on the cigar and the smoke dissipated as it blended with the darkness, leaving only the red glow to remain.
"What news do you have?" His words were soft, barely carrying to where the messenger waited. Morgan stood as if mesmerized by the water flowing past the ship, as though deep in thought.
"I heard from Washington today. Everything is being put in place. They're leaving it up to you to set the stage, but they want you to know that a lawman in Sand Creek is aware of the situation."
"What would they like me to do about a cover?" His laugh was low, as if his thoughts amused him. "Forget I asked," he said.
"You can go in as a married man who's sent his wife off to keep her safe."
"That won't do it," Morgan argued mildly. "Aren't there any agents available?"
"You don't want much, do you? A woman like that is hard to come by."
"Not if the price is right," Morgan returned mildly.
"Maybe you'd better find one yourself," the messenger suggested, then with barely a whisper, he slipped through the shadows and made his way from his hiding place, leaving Gage Morgan to consider the situation.
What he needed was going to be well nigh impossible to come up with, but he was willing to give it a shot. The cigar flared again briefly and then was extinguished by the water below as it was cast into the muddy depths.
Three aces, fanning before him as he edged the cards apart, was a good beginning, Gage Morgan decided. The chance of the dealer delivering the fourth was slim indeed, but even three of them were worth more than the fifty cents he tossed in the pot to up the ante. This just might be another lucky night. He leaned back in his chair, eyed the pile of coins in the middle of the table and waited.
A haze of smoke hung low over the men who were contributing to his wallet, and Gage wished idly for a wandering breeze to ease the burning of his eyes. Whiskey, cigars and wild women accompanied the dealing of cards, it seemed, no matter where men assembled as poker was played. Tonight promised to be no different than last night or the endless string of midnights he'd spent at just such a table.
He touched his squat glass of whiskey, running his index finger around the rim as he waited for decisions to be made. The five men who circled the table were old hands at this - their faces like stone walls, without a glimmer of emotion visible. And his was the same, he thought idly, should an observer take note. He prided himself on a stoic expression, knew the value of denying himself a gleam of triumph or a frown of consternation.
"More whiskey, mister?" The woman who stood at his elbow looked at his half-empty glass, and her hand brushed his shoulder, catching his attention. He shook his head, an abrupt movement that discouraged her attentiveness to his glass. She moved on to the man directly across the table and Morgan's gaze rested on the red gown she wore.
It clung in all the right places, and the figure beneath the shimmering satin was lush, her hips a bit too slender, perhaps, but the fullness of her bosom was enough to draw every eye in the place. His were no exception.
Allowing his dark gaze to slide upward to her face, he found a wary expression in the eyes that returned his scrutiny. Her mouth was unpainted, a rarity in a riverboat saloon such as this, but her cheeks wore a dusting of some rosy hue. Dark hair hung in a mass of ringlets across her shoulders, halfway to her waist, drawn back from high cheekbones and held in place by silver combs that were incongruous in this place. Real silver, he'd warrant, not cheap imitations that could be purchased for a few cents.
The lady must have an admirer, he decided, some generous man who was willing to pay her price. A three-dollar gold piece would no doubt buy her attentions for a night, perhaps two if she was low on her luck. He felt a twitch in his lower parts, where months of celibacy had obviously rendered him vulnerable to such a female as this one.
Hell, why not? She was obviously available and he was possessed of more money these days than he needed. Lady Luck had been good to him. At least when it came to playing poker. He felt stymied. His other endeavors were not paying forth any recent dividends, and that would not endear him to the men he worked for.
He shot another look at the red dress, then glanced down at the cards he held, and considered his options. "How many, Morgan?" The dealer held the rest of the deck in his hand, and Gage placed two cards on the table, nudging them toward the man who waited. With a snap of the cardboard, he was dealt two and he touched them with his fingertips, bringing them to rest before him.
The men on either side of him examined their hands in a negligent manner and Gage slid his own newcomers into his hand. The first was a trey and he glanced at it for a moment before he fanned the hand to expose the second. The ace of hearts sent a message of success to his mind, and he paused for only a moment before he tapped the five cards into a neat pile and held them in his palm.
"I'll raise," said the fourth player, pushing a three-dollar gold piece toward the pot.
Gage selected a matching coin from those in front of him and met the raise, then hesitated for just a moment. With an idle gesture, he added another glittering coin. Around the table the players watched, their eyes hooded, smoke rising to drift above their heads as they contemplated his move.
"I'm out," said one, tossing his hand facedown before him.
Excerpted from The Marriage Agreement by Carolyn Davidson Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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