When a lady gambler wins half interest in a Missouri riverboat, the captain fears he may lose his heart in the bargain.
Read an ExcerptThe River Nymph
By Shirl Henke Dorchester Publishing Copyright © 2008 Shirl Henke
All right reserved.
Chapter One It wasn't every night a crowd on the St. Louis levee got to see a female riverboat gambler. It for sure wasn't every night they got to see Clint Daniels lose his shirt, as he sat across from her in the made-over salon aboard his stern-wheeler, The River Nymph.
The boat's long, narrow card room overflowed with goggle-eyed spectators of every stripe, from wizened wharf rats and hard-eyed harlots to staid tradesmen and even a few elegantly dressed bankers and other swells. The lower classes lined the bar at the far end of the room while the rich men sat around tables in the shadowy corners.
Bright lights from the St. Louis waterfront flickered through the windows, but every eye in the place was fixed intently on the center table. A large globe lamp overhead illuminated the players seated around its green baize surface-Clint Daniels, Ike Bauer, Teddy Porter ... and the female.
Although no lady would ever set foot in a gambling establishment, she certainly looked like one, dressed in a pale green linen suit with dark green piping. The frilly lace collar of her white blouse peeped tantalizingly above the jacket's high neckline, caressing her slender throat. Rich chestnut curls were piled atop her head, where a tiny hat with a dark green feather perched. She had an arresting face with a slender nose, high brow and full pink lips. But the deep-set jade eyes were her best feature. If she knew every man in the place desired her, she gave not the slightest indication.
This was a very high-stakes game, five-card stud St. Louis style: first card down, next three up, last card down. Ike Bauer, who was the dealer, folded after the second round of cards, pushed the remaining few dollars left of his original ten-thousand-dollar table stake into the pot and declared himself out when he finished this deal.
Now, after the fourth round and final up card, Clint bet a thousand. The woman examined his cards and counted out a stack of bills from the obscenely large mound of cash in front of her. "Your thousand and two thousand more." Mrs. Delilah Mathers Raymond possessed a rich whiskey voice, even though she never touched a drop.
Teddy Porter stared at the globe lamp above him as if seeking a miracle to keep him in the game. The freight company owner was an obese man whose tiny mustache could not stem the flow of perspiration dribbling down his upper lip. Pulling a red handkerchief from his pocket, he mopped his down-turned lips. "Damnation! I ain't got that much in my stack." Porter pushed his cards into the middle of the table and started to pocket his remaining few hundred dollars.
"You know better, Teddy. What's left of your table stake remains for the winner." Clint deliberately did not look at the fat man, but every spectator knew that Teddy Porter was within a hair's breadth of being turned into fertilizer.
Porter tossed the money into the pot, then pried himself out of his chair. "Now I know why men oughta keep women barefoot and pregnant." There were snickers of agreement from the bar.
Ignoring them, Mrs. Raymond fixed Porter with a calm stare, then said in that throaty voice, "A woman might find it difficult to deal a hand while nursing a child, sir. But I'm certain even a barefooted woman with a babe at each breast could separate a player of your ... skill from his money." The room filled with laughter. Porter's sweaty red face glowed like the globe lamp overhead when she added, "As for handling cards with a bloated stomach, you could perhaps enlighten us regarding the difficulty?"
The laughter became raucous, drowning out the freighter's snorted obscenity. When he placed his meaty fists on the table and leaned across it, the woman's chaperone, a tall, cadaverously gaunt man of indeterminate age, slid his hand inside the jacket of his frock coat.
"Teddy," Clint Daniels said in a deceptively soft Southern drawl, "you started the mouthin' and you got bested. Hell, you know a man can't beat a woman in a barkin' contest. Take your whipping like a sport and leave ... while you're still upright." Porter hesitated for a moment, looking from Daniels to the thin man in the high starched collar. Unclenching his fists, he backed off and waddled out of the room.
Mrs. Raymond ignored his retreat. "I repeat, Mr. Daniels, two thousand to you ... or should I say 'woof'?"
Clint threw back his head and laughed. "'Woof' would definitely be the wrong language for a lady with cat's eyes." Her deep green eyes did not blink. "You have three spades up, same as me." The odds were getting better. "I'll just call your two thousand."
Bauer dealt the last down cards. Clint watched as she looked at hers. Damn, she's good. Absolutely no expression. After playing against her all evening, he expected she would give away nothing. He looked at his last card, his face revealing no more than hers.
"Well, since I'm still high, I'll bet ..." Clint counted his remaining cash. "Seventeen hundred dollars."
"Call and raise five thousand." Her gaze was cold as ice.
Clint smiled. Well, that's what you get for playing poker with a beautiful woman. Mrs. Raymond was a professional, and she was doing what any professional would do. Hell, what he would do in her place. Having cleaned him out of his ten-thousand-dollar table stake, she raised. Since he had no money left to call that raise, he would have to forfeit the game.
"I'd love to play this hand, but at the moment I'm sufferin' from an obvious financial embarrassment." He shrugged carelessly and smiled at her.
Delilah Mathers Raymond tapped her delicate chin with one slender finger as she examined the tall gambler lounging so carelessly in his chair. She did not return the smile. His eyes were palest blue, almost gray, fathomless. Thick, coarse hair the color of straw fell across his forehead. His jaw was firm and his chin possessed a slight cleft. The smiling lips could be either cruel or sensual, or both. Regardless of which, the arrogant clod probably had women, from both sides of the tracks, swooning over him.
Delilah was maliciously pleased to detect a few minor imperfections. A small scar in one eyebrow and another thin white slash that ran from the corner of his right eye an inch down his cheek. His patrician nose was slightly off center, too, probably broken in a fight over a woman. She had seen his type from Boston to New Orleans. Mrs. Raymond smiled inwardly. The way her luck was running tonight, perhaps someone might knock out a couple of those white, beautifully even front teeth!
Damn but she detested Southern cavaliers! She had spent almost a decade holding her own against what they had done. Far easier to handle a bloated pig like Porter. At least he showed his bruised male ego rather than hide behind a facade of polite, supercilious courtesy. She was determined to wipe that superior smile from Clinton Daniels's face.
"For shame, Mr. Daniels. Capitulate so easily? I have a proposition for you."
Clint's smile broadened into a full-blown grin. "A proposition? From a lady? This must be my lucky night."
"Not that I have detected so far." She stared pointedly at the empty expanse of table in front of him. "But that could change." Lady! Delilah knew no woman who played cards for a living was ever considered a lady, least of all by a Southern gentleman, even if he was a gambler. "Since you and I are the only players remaining in this game, I propose an alteration to the rules. I'll waive the ten-thousand table stake restriction so you may call my bet ... if you so desire."
Though his face betrayed nothing, Clint felt a little rush of triumph. So, Gorgeous, you filled that flush. "All right, ma'am, I can arrange to have the cash...."
"No cash," she interrupted calmly. "I understand that you own this boat. I will allow you to call my raise with the deed to The River Nymph."
The room could have been a mausoleum. No one moved. The silence was absolute. Even old Timmy Grimes, the waterfront drunk, paused his whiskey glass halfway to his mouth.
Daniels tipped his flat-crowned Stetson even farther back on his head. The corners of his mouth lifted slightly. "Mrs. Raymond, your raise-in fact, all the money in the pot-isn't equal to the value of the Nymph."
Delilah counted out a stack of bills and handed them to her gaunt protector. Then she pushed the rest of her winnings into the pot, arching one brow in a dare. Her smile was contemptuous.
"All right, ma'am, we'll say that's close enough. Consider yourself called."
Delilah shook her head. "Oh, I think not, sir. I don't accept markers."
A collective murmur rustled through the card room. Clinton Daniels had been a fixture on the St. Louis waterfront for seven years. His reputation for fair play was legendary. As was his skill with cards and, when needed, a gun.
And this female had just insulted him.
Clint tipped back his chair and stared at the woman as if she were some curiosity in a freak show. He shrugged and motioned to a man behind the bar. "Banjo, please fetch Mrs. Raymond the deed." Banjo Banks, whose nickname was derived from the unfortunate bulk of his posterior relative to that of his upper body, scurried out of the salon.
In the silence that once again settled over the room, Clint decided that it was his turn to catalogue Mrs. Delilah Mathers Raymond as she had so thoroughly done to him earlier. As soon as their eyes met in the thickening silence, she averted her gaze. Calmly, she studied the flickering lights along the St. Louis levee revealed through the door Banjo had left open.
Clint was certain that she was not the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. But he was damned if he could recall when or where he had seen one better. Her hair was a dark, rich brown-except when she turned so the lamplight streaked it with sparkling bursts of dark flame. Her face was that of a mature woman, perhaps in her late twenties. There was none of the pouty softness of a schoolroom miss. High cheekbones, stubborn chin and delicate nose-but it was the dark green eyes, the lush shade of river moss, that held his fancy most. That and her slightly plump lips. Positively wicked, they begged to be kissed.
Clint nodded to Delilah's hand resting on the table. "I take it that you are a widow, Mrs. Raymond?" he said in a soft drawl.
Delilah twisted the simple wedding band. "Yes. I lost my husband during the war. 'Sixty-four."
"You must have been very young. My condolences, ma'am."
"I don't want your condolences, sir, just your boat." The tone of her voice was underlaid with a snappishness at odds with her earlier cool professionalism.
Daniels noticed. "I take it from your Eastern accent that your husband fought for the North."
"And quite obviously, judging from your accent-if you fought at all-you fought for the Rebels." Delilah struggled to control a spurt of dangerous anger.
"You just might be surprised," Clint murmured.
Banjo came barging into the room and hurried to the table. He handed his boss a sheet of heavy vellum. After glancing at it, he gave it to Delilah. She quickly scanned the document and then pushed it back for his signature. Clint shook his head. "Only if you win, Mrs. Raymond. And another thing," he added, his lips thinning, "Since you're such a stickler for details, I still don't reckon that the pot equals the value of my boat, so I consider this deed as calling your bet and a raise equal to the amount of the money you just passed to ...?" He looked at the black-clad man towering protectively behind her.
"My uncle, Horace Mathers." She paused and moistened her lips. "Mr. Daniels, there is over thirty thousand in that pot-"
"And a prime shallow-draft stern-wheeler like the Nymph'll go for over forty. Do you call my raise, lady?"
Delilah looked at Daniels's three up cards, all spades. She nodded to Horace, who tossed the stack of bills into the pot. The brunette looked her opponent squarely in the eyes. "Now you can consider yourself called."
Clint flipped over his two down cards, both spades, one the king. "King-high flush, ma'am." The tension broken, the spectators expelled a collective sigh.
Delilah turned over her two down cards, both spades, one the ace. "Ace-high flush, sir. I believe I hold the winning hand."
From the moment that Horace had tossed in the money to cover Clint's raise, neither Clint nor the woman had bothered looking at the table. They had locked eyes and had never broken contact. His eyes were empty, even when he smiled. She almost shivered. But when the crowd broke into astonished cries of disbelief, Delilah deliberately allowed a fleeting spark of triumph to flash across her face.
Daniels registered no response. In fact, his eyes, intently studying her, remained devoid of any emotion; certainly they did not reveal the anger or sense of defeat she had hoped to glimpse. After a moment, he merely smiled that smile that did not reach his eyes, pulled the deed across the table and signed it with a flourish, then tossed it cavalierly on the pile of currency.
"Well, ma'am, you wouldn't accept my condolences, but I do trust you'll accept my congratulations." He rose, touching the brim of his hat, and turned to leave.
Delilah was furious. The bastard was patronizing her. Refuse to admit defeat, would he! She waited until he almost reached the bar. Then her husky voice stopped him. "Mr. Daniels, please don't leave just yet. I pride myself on being a magnanimous victor."
Her uncle Horace bent down and put his hand on her arm, whispering something, but she shook her head.
"I always like to leave my less fortunate opponents with something. How about one last bet, sir, a chance to win back a stake for another game? I'll bet a thousand dollars against the clothes you're wearing that I can beat you cutting for high card." The crowd was stunned into silence. No one up or down the river had ever heard such an outrageous proposition.
Clint cocked his head, studying the beautiful woman.
Delilah had expected shock or anger, but not curiosity ... or was it disappointment? At least his eyes were now alive. She flushed, suddenly uncertain of her triumph.
Clint finally replied, "I'll accept your wager, ma'am, if you'll allow me to exclude my weapons and cigar case from the bet."
Delilah nodded woodenly. She had done what no professional ever did. What Uncle Horace had warned her not ever to do-let her emotions interfere with business.
Clint moved back to the table but did not take a seat. Delilah had not realized he was quite so tall. He picked up the deck and riffled it contemplatively. Then he handed it to Ike Bauer, who was watching from the sidelines. "Would you shuffle the cards?" When Bauer nodded, he looked over at Mrs. Raymond's protector. "If that's all right with you?" he inquired.
With a disgusted look at his niece, Horace agreed, eager to terminate the distasteful business. Bauer shuffled, then laid the deck on the table and stepped back. Clint nodded to Delilah. "Ladies first."
She drew a three of hearts and sighed with relief. This was one game she would be happy to lose. She had been a fool to taunt the hometown favorite into making the bet.
The room grew deathly silent when Clint flipped over a deuce. The crowd groaned.
But Delilah's whisper-thin voice echoed over the noise. "You may send the clothes to the boat in the morning, Mr. Daniels."
Her face burned and she could not bear to look at any of the people surrounding her, least of all Clinton Daniels. Delilah knew she had humiliated him. He represented the life she hated, but the man had nothing to do with her past. A hard lump formed at the back of her throat. She turned away, staring out one of the side windows, recently installed to turn the open hurricane deck into an enclosed salon. The winking lights from the city above the levee seemed to mock her.
Suddenly her attention was pulled back to the table by a soft thump.
Clint's hat dropped onto the pile of cash in the center of the table. Next came his coat, his waistcoat and a handful of shirt studs. An alarmed Delilah looked at his face with something akin to terror. "My God, Daniels, send the clothes tomorrow ... or don't send them at all-I was just making a bad joke."
Clint shrugged off his shirt, revealing a muscular chest flecked with gold hair narrowing to his waistband. Smiling, he said, "I don't think so, ma'am. Remember? You never leave a table without collecting your winnin's ... no markers."
The stillness remained palpable as he continued to undress. But everyone's hostile eyes fixed on her.
Excerpted from The River Nymph by Shirl Henke Copyright © 2008 by Shirl Henke . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
SHIRL HENKE lives in St. Louis, where she enjoys gardening in her yard and greenhouse, cooking holiday dinners for her family and listening to jazz. In addition to helping brainstorm and research her books, her husband Jim is “lion tamer” for their two wild young tomcats, Pewter and Sooty, geniuses at pillage and destruction.
Shirl has been a RITA finalist twice, and has won three Career Achievement Awards, an Industry Award and three Reviewer’s Choice Awards from Romantic Times.
“I wrote my first twenty-two novels in longhand with a ballpoint pen—it’s hard to get good quills these days,” she says. Dragged into the twenty-first century by her son Matt, a telecommunication specialist, Shirl now uses two of those “devil machines.” Another troglodyte bites the dust. Please visit her at www.shirlhenke.com.
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On the Mississippi Delilah Raymond wins the floating bordello The River Nymph from professional Clint Daniels in a game of cards. However, she hopes to turn respectable with no cards or hookers to manage. Instead she wants to convert the River Nymph into a cargo ship.-------------- To accomplish her objective she needs a partner so she considers Clint, who faced the added humiliation of having to strip after losing a side bet with Delilah. He reluctantly accepts her offer. As they travel the river together with her cargo, they begin to fall in love. However, they face trouble from amoral competitors using hitmen and other dangerous criminals her only hope to achieve her goal lies in trusting him and his relationship with the nearby Sioux, who revere him as venerable Lightning Hand.------------ Readers will obtain a feel for nineteenth century Life on the Mississippi with this vivid historical romance. The lead couple is a fascinating duet who gambles on cards, cargo, and love. Though the bad guys contain no redeeming quality, the fun story line is fast-paced from the moment Delilah stuns the cardsharp and never slows down as he risks his life to help her dream come true.--------------- Harriet Klausner