Emma Palmer has had many jobs and has gone by even more names, but most recently she is known as Seline, madam of her own establishment. Her place is clean, her booze is cheap and her bedrooms are fancy. But when a would-be patron won’t take no for an answer, she is forced to don a new disguise and flee for her life. While the schemes she cooks up might seem outrageous to an outsider, they haven’t failed her yet.
Tom Slater is a taciturn cattleman at the tail end of a long, hard season on the trail. He’s looking forward to a quiet winter at his old family homestead in Mexico. What he doesn’t plan on is escorting a group of women on the run to safety south of the border. Tom doesn’t need to be a trailsman to know that the woman with the sly, green eyes—the one he can’t keep out of his thoughts—will only lead to trouble.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Tess LeSue
Mokelumne Hill, California, 1850
She was rich. Standing in her office over the whorehouse saloon, Seline watched as the lawyer’s fountain pen scratched at the ledger, forming a beautiful little billow of zeros. She had to pinch herself. In less than a year, the Heart of Gold had made her wealthier than she’d ever dreamed of being. And this wasn’t even all of it. She still had two other businesses to cash in. Once she’d sold the other whorehouses in Angels Camp and Mariposa, she’d be almost as rich as Midas himself.
She watched as the prissy eastern lawyer transposed all of those lovely zeros onto the contract, her heart a tight little ball in her chest. Each zero he added was a further nail in the coffin of her current life. Good-bye, Seline. Good-bye, mining town. Good-bye, men. That money meant a nice little house in San Francisco, maybe even one with a view of the bay. It meant finishing her days when the sun was setting, rather than working through the night. No more hitting her pillow as dawn was breaking. It meant sitting on her lonesome drinking her first coffee of the day, in peace, without having to settle accounts and shoo out the last malingerers filling up her beds. It meant hammering out no more quarrels and mopping up no more tears and helping no more damn fool girls. Once she’d collected the last of her money, Seline planned to never see the inside of another whorehouse in her life.
“You’re buying one hell of a business,” she told Justine, who was equally transfixed by the ink flowing from the nib of the lawyer’s fancy fountain pen.
“Don’t I know it,” Jussy said. She looked a little green at how much it was costing her. But she was no fool. She was getting the whorehouse at a cut price; if it weren’t for Hec Boehm running Seline outta town, the place would have gone for more. But with a man like Hec snapping at her skirts, Seline was just happy to grab what she could get. Luckily, what she could get was eye-wateringly wonderful.
Mr. Teague put the gold dust in neatly folded brown squares of paper and lined up the rows of banknotes, using the beautiful little gold nuggets to weigh the stacks down.
“You’d best be depositing all of that in the bank, quick smart,” Mr. Teague told her, peering up over his crooked spectacles. “Moke Hill is no place for a . . . ahem . . . lady . . . to be carrying around a fortune like that.”
Seline ignored him. Even if she planned to stay in town—which she didn’t—she didn’t believe in banks. Especially not the one in Mokelumne Hill, which was run by Wilbur Stroud, a man who liked to be tied to a chair naked while Seline’s girls dressed up like nuns and told him that he was a very naughty boy. Sometimes, when business was especially stressful at the bank, he’d even ask the nuns to take a strap to him.
No. Seline would look after her own money, thank you very much.
“Would you like me to read you the documents?” Teague asked.
Seline snatched them off him. Honestly. These men were all alike. They thought being a whore meant you were stupid. How did he think she could run her businesses without reading? She went through the contract first, and then the deeds to the building and the business. Justine peered over her shoulder. They each found a couple of errors, which Teague swiftly corrected and initialed, looking sour.
Seline’s hands were sweaty as she took the corrected documents back from him and checked them one last time. There in the thicket of fancy legal words was her freedom. From Hec Boehm and Moke Hill, and best of all, from whoredom. And right at the bottom of the contract was a space for her to write her name. Her real name. The one she hadn’t used for nigh on twelve years . . .
“You sign first,” she told Justine, her voice a little unsteady. Hell. It was the thought of that name, she supposed. It was like seeing a ghost . . . a ghost that brought with it an ugly mudslide of memories. The weight on her. The pain. The smell of his rank corn liquor sweat. The feel of a hand clamped over her mouth and nose.
She exhaled. She hadn’t been quick enough to get out of the way, that was all. Not then, and not now. Usually, she could jump aside before the memories hit. And there were more memories than she cared to count; the sludge of her past was a relentless tide, an avalanche of shame and fear, prone to sucking her down and drowning her alive.
But they were just memories, she told herself fiercely, as she watched Justine bend over the documents, pen in hand. They were the past. And this, right here, right now, was the beginning of her future.
And her future was going to be a gold-plated, beautiful thing.
Justine finished her signature with a flourish and handed the pen to Seline. “All yours, boss.”
“No, honey,” Seline said, shaking off her ugly past and the whipped little creature she’d been and adopting her fancy welcome-to-the-whorehouse drawl, “it’s all yours now. Boss.”
And as she signed the deed, her black signature an energetic slash on the page, she did so with her real name. With the name of the girl who had been left back in Tennessee all those years ago, scared and alone and with no other option than to let men buy her body by the hour.
Emma Jane Palmer.
She was free.
Or, almost free. First she had to get out of town without Hec Boehm or any of his greasy henchmen seeing her.
“He’s got those Koerners parked downstairs waiting for you, and that Dutch thug is watching the back door,” Justine told her. The newly promoted madam was eager to get Emma out of her whorehouse as quickly as possible. She didn’t fancy her expensive business the target of Hec’s violence, not when she’d just paid her life savings for it.
“Don’t fret, Teague’s going to tell Hec I’ve sold up. He’s headed to Hec’s place now.” Emma swept her fortune into the saddlebags she had waiting on the floor. The bags were deliciously heavy. She was glad the office had a connecting door to her room, so she didn’t have to go out on the landing to get there, dragging her fortune with her. She knew Kipp Koerner would be watching the office door, probably without blinking. That man was like a tick on a dog when it came to doing Hec’s business. His brother Carter, on the other hand, was just as liable to be liquored up and counting his coins to do the nasty with JoBeth or Mona. He favored the young-looking ones.
“Don’t fret, she says,” Justine parroted, following her into the bedroom. “It don’t matter a lick if he knows you sold, so long as you’re here.”
Didn’t Emma know it. She dropped the saddlebags and yanked her carpetbag out from under the bed. “Teague’s also going to tell Mr. Boehm that I’ll receive him tomorrow, at 9 p.m. sharp. To give him my decision.” Justine didn’t look reassured. “Teague will also pass on that my answer will of course be yes,” Emma told her, as though that solved everything.
Jussy looked less convinced than ever. “And why would you sell this place, if you were planning on staying in Moke Hill?”
Emma fluttered her eyelashes. “To devote my full attentions to his pleasure.” She snorted. “Or so Teague will tell him—along with how much it will cost him to have me. He did say he wanted me exclusively. And that sure as hell can’t happen if I’m busy running this joint every night.” It would also flatter his vanity, the thought of having her completely to himself. He’d already offered to set her up in a little place of her own, right on the main street across from the Heart of Gold. She’d be like his personal canary, hung right where everyone could see him strutting in and out of her gilded cage. He wanted one and all to know that he’d conquered the unconquerable whore. And he wanted to reinforce that she was, when all was said and done, still just a whore after all.
She’d made the price absolutely ridiculous. She didn’t think Hec would believe anything less, considering how much of a stink she’d kicked up over the whole business. Unconsciously, she touched her fingers to her neck. The bruises were just about gone now, but the memory of his hands around her throat was too fresh for comfort.
There was a sharp knock, and she and Justine both jumped. Hell. Was that him now? She’d been sure he’d wait until tomorrow. He was enjoying the theater of her defeat too much to cut it short. Little did the fat pig know that she wasn’t defeated at all. She’d be halfway to Mariposa before he worked out that she wasn’t here.
“Boss?” Virgil’s voice was muffled through the closed door.
“Yes?” both Emma and Justine answered. Whoops. It was going to take a while to remember that she wasn’t the boss anymore: Justine was. She gave Justine an apologetic look.
“You still want to open at the usual time?” Virge asked through the door.
“God, yes!” Despite her best intentions, Emma couldn’t help responding. Nothing would tip Hec off faster than if the Heart of Gold was shuttered up past opening time. She needed him to think that she was still here. Still here and weeping into her pillow that the mighty Hec Boehm had bested her.
Emma hadn’t turned a trick since she’d stopped her wagons in Moke Hill just under a year ago. She’d been well and truly done letting men paw at her. She’d spent too many years flat on her back for the profit of others; it was her turn to make the money. And she was a good madam. She paid her girls fair and helped them move on as fast as they could. Very few girls liked whoring; it was something a girl did when she was out of options. Seline made sure that they could do it safely and save their money to start over. She watched them light out after a couple of months, cashed up and free of the trade, and she couldn’t wait to follow in their footsteps. But she was in it to make more than just a handful of cash; the Heart of Gold was her ticket to freedom forever. It took time to build that kind of nest egg; she’d been patient, and now her time had come, and she was glad to say that, since coming to Moke Hill, she’d bought her ticket out of here without letting a single man poke his stick into her. Her body was hers again, and hers alone, and she planned to keep it that way. No matter how much gold the mud-splattered miners offered her, she turned them down. Seline was bright as a peacock, strutting the bar downstairs, teasing and laughing and making sure they all had a good time—but that good time wasn’t going to be with her. Her girls were as fancy as she could make them: scrubbed and scented and dressed to the nines. And the miners were happy enough when she turned them aside, so long as it was into the arms of one of her girls.
But not Hec Boehm. That man had taken one look at Seline and decided that he was going to be the man to knock her flat on her back and keep her there. He was the kind of man who had to play with other people’s toys, Emma thought sourly; a selfish spoiled brat of a man. And he had all of Moke Hill in his sweaty fist.
“Will you be down soon?” Virgil asked through the door. “We’re opening up, and we need you to play hostess.”
“I’ll be down,” Justine told Virgil firmly. “It’s my place now.”
Emma took the unsubtle hint and left Justine to deal with Virgil. She turned her attention to packing. So long as the place opened as usual, she was happy. She dusted off her carpetbag. It was pitifully small, but she had to travel light. It was such a shame to leave all her pretty dresses behind though, she thought with a sigh. Still, she couldn’t very well wear screaming pink satin now that she wasn’t running a whorehouse. She ran her fingers regretfully over her favorite dress, which was heaped on the chair where she’d left it the night before. No more frills and furbelows for her . . . let alone her peacock feather headdress, which sat in pride of place on her dresser. She felt a pang about leaving it, but what use were peacock feathers now? She was hardly going to wear them baking bread or tending her kitchen garden, was she? She’d have to get herself some nice, simple clothes. Something dowdy and respectable. Gingham maybe. Hell. Not gingham. She’d rather be dead than wear gingham. If Hec Boehm hadn’t been such a hasty old hog, she would have had time to prepare properly, she thought grumpily, and there would have been no question of resorting to gingham.
“I have to get ready,” Justine said once Virge had gone, “so you’d best stop telling me not to fret and start working out how to deal with Hec Boehm and his boys.”
“You worry too much.” Emma sounded more confident than she felt. “As usual. I’ve already got a plan.”
Justine rolled her eyes. Emma’s plans were notorious. “What plan?”
Emma threw open the big wardrobe opposite her bed and rifled through it. There was a screech of hangers on the metal rod. The wardrobe was stuffed full. This was where she kept the girls’ best gear, as well as her own. She yanked out gowns, tossing them on the bed. Oh, it hurt to leave them behind. Maybe she could just take one . . .
“What plan?” Justine demanded.
“This one.” Emma found what she was looking for and brandished the coat hanger high in triumph. Well, as high as she could. The damn thing weighed a ton. It was like holding up a sack of potatoes. “I’m going to be a nun!”
“You’re not serious.”
“Of course I’m serious! It’s a great plan.” She turned the heavy black habit around and gave it a quick once-over. It was an ugly thing, made of many layers of coarsely woven wool, and it was as heavy as sin. It was like a big old black tent. No one would make out her shape under it, and the wimple would hide her blazing red hair perfectly. If she wiped the paint off her face, she was sure no one would recognize her. She looked totally different without the rouge and the kohl. More like a hick straight off a farm than a fancy lady.
“It’s the daftest thing you’ve suggested yet.” Justine sat on the bed and put her face in her hands. “What did I do? Hec’s going to torch this place, and you’re dressing up like a nun. I’ve just bought a pile of ashes.”
“Don’t be like that.” Emma wrestled with the habit, trying to get it off the hanger. There were so many pieces to it. How in hell did you put it on? No wonder Wilbur never got the girls naked. He wouldn’t have been able to afford the time it took.
“Don’t you think they’ll find it odd to see a nun leaving a whorehouse?” Justine asked, exasperated. “Especially when they didn’t see her enter it?”
Trust Justine to go throwing logic at her.
“It ain’t my fault Hec got all het up and impatient,” Emma told her. “I’m doing the best with what I’ve got.” She tossed the loose pieces of the habit over her dressing chair, where the black cloth looked even coarser and uglier against her pink dress. She turned her attention to the biggest, most sack-like part of it, trying to work out which end was the head.
Her instincts told her the nun getup would work, and Emma had learned to trust her instincts. They’d kept her alive this far.
People were nice to nuns. Respectful. She wasn’t likely to be accosted traveling to Mariposa in this outfit. It was the safest way to go—especially carrying a fortune in her saddlebags.
“You’ve got to stop looking for problems,” she told Justine as she wedged the habit under her arm and hunted through the bottom of the wardrobe for her old black boots, “and start thinking in terms of solutions.”
“This ain’t a solution! It’s just plain crazy.”
“Hush.” Emma crawled backward out of the wardrobe, boots in hand. “What’s crazy is nagging me when it ain’t my fault. You want to go nagging someone, go nag old Hec. He’s the reason for all this fuss and bother.” She dropped the boots on the floor by the chair and turned her back to Justine. “Unbutton me, will you?” She heard Jussy sigh as she got to her feet. “You worry too much,” Emma said kindly as Justine started on the little buttons running down the back of the purple taffeta gown. Emma played with the precious little scalloped frill on her sleeve. How was she going to leave this behind? She loved this dress. It had a double layer of fancy flouncing near the hem that had taken her forever to sew. And it looked so nice with those peacock feathers.
Justine ignored her and kept on with the buttons.
They were totally unprepared when the door burst open.
Justine shrieked and Emma leaped for the chair, half coming out of her purple dress in the process. Her gun was somewhere under the pink satin gown, where she’d left it the night before. Stupid. She should have kept it close.
She snatched up the Colt, turning it on the intruder.
“Goddamn it, Calla!” she swore when she saw who had burst in. “I mighta shot you!”
Calla was staring wide eyed at the pistol, which was still pointed at her chest. “Why in hell are you wanting to shoot me?”
“Didn’t anyone ever tell you to knock?”
The Mexican girl pulled a face. “No one ever told me I’d be shot for not knocking.”
“Well, I’m telling you now.” Emma’s hand was shaking as she lowered the pistol. “Now close that door. Can’t you see I ain’t entirely decent?”
“I’ve got a letter for you,” Calla said as she closed the door. She was mighty calm for someone who’d almost been shot. But then in Moke Hill almost getting shot happened on a weekly basis. “Virge said to bring it straight up. It’s from Hec Boehm.”
Justine snatched it out of her hand. “You can go now,” she said shortly.
Emma snatched the note off Justine. “You can go too,” she suggested.
“No.” Justine and Calla spoke in unison, equally annoyed.
Emma kept hold of the pistol as she read the note. She was shaking something fierce now. She turned her back on the girls so they couldn’t see. The letters swam before her eyes as she struggled to read Hec’s crabbed handwriting.
“It’s a love letter,” she said, feeling weak with relief. Oh, thank God. The idiot had believed her when she said she would think about becoming his mistress. And he’d clearly believed Teague that she was looking to say yes.
“A love letter?” Justine sounded disbelieving. “From Hec Boehm?”
“Well, a love letter of sorts.” It was more of a detailed map of what he was going to do to her. That was about as loving as a man like Hec Boehm was likely to get. He seemed to think she’d enjoy his—what did he call it?—manly persuasion. She thrust the note at Justine and wriggled out of her purple taffeta dress. It rustled as it fell to the floor. Emma jumped over the skirts and snatched up the tented part of the nun’s habit. She could feel the phantom press of Hec’s hands around her throat. The sooner she was out of here, the better.
“Oh Lord.” Justine sounded ill. “This is worse than I thought. He’s a lot more than keen on you. He’s besotted. What’s he going to do when he finds you’ve gone? He’ll kill me.”
Emma had worried about that. But she had a plan. “I’ll leave him a note.”
Emma was glad Justine wasn’t the one with the gun. She was looking a little murderous. “Listen before you judge,” she cautioned. Why didn’t people ever trust her? Hadn’t she shown herself to be a sensible woman? Hadn’t she brought a couple of wagonloads of whores two thousand miles from Missouri, across those horrid plains, without losing a single one to disease or disaster? Hadn’t she built a thriving business? In fact, not one thriving business, but three? But people still treated her like she didn’t know what she was doing.
“How do you put this thing on?” she asked, confounded by the habit. No matter which way she turned, she couldn’t make heads or tails of it.
“Put the shift on first,” Calla told her, stepping up to help. She’d been raised on a mission and threw herself into the role of Mother Superior with vigor when Wilbur came calling. As she helped Emma into the sack-like shift and then lowered the even heavier full body apron over the top, she didn’t bother to ask why her boss was dressing up as a nun. The Heart of Gold was the kind of place where it was best not to ask too many questions.
“How’s a note going to help?”
Unless you were Justine. Justine never stopped asking questions.
“It’s not just about the note,” Emma said, distracted by contraption Calla was trying to cram onto her head. “It’ll be the whole setup.”
“You know, proper nuns would cut their hair off,” Calla said, as she yanked the white coif down over Emma’s ears.
“Good thing I ain’t a proper nun.” Although she had been wondering how to get the henna out of her hair. Henna didn’t fade. Maybe cutting her hair wasn’t such a bad idea. It could be part of her whole fresh start, and when her hair grew back, it would be her natural color. Emma Jane Palmer’s natural color. She didn’t quite remember what that color was anymore. Reddish. But probably darker now that she was a grown woman.
“What whole setup? You give me such a headache!” Justine was whipping herself into a frenzy. She’d have to learn some serenity if she wanted to survive running this place.
“You should try wearing this thing, if you want to talk headaches.” Emma attempted to wedge her fingers between her forehead and the coif. It was pinching off the blood supply to her brain.
“What whole setup?” Justine was so angry her eyeballs were just about bulging out of her head.
Emma took pity on her and put her out of her misery. “I’ll tell him we’re playing a little game, honey. He likes his games. At least according to the girls. Most of the time I think he’s more interested in playing than in poking.”
“You can say that again,” Calla agreed, hefting the stiff headdress over Emma’s coif. “Sometimes he likes to play hide-and-seek. We leave clothes scattered about like clues, and he has to come find us. We’re supposed to be naked when he does, but often we cheat. He quite likes having a reason to get all angry and give us a spanking.”
“It never ceases to amaze me how many men like spanking,” Emma mused.
“I don’t mind a spanking myself,” Calla admitted. “It’s better than being poked. I don’t mind anything that keeps them busy, to be honest, so long as they poke less.”
“Are you suggesting that you’re going to play hide-and-seek with Hec Boehm?” Justine sounded appalled.
“Of course not. I’m just going to tell him I’m playing hide-and-seek. I’ve already written the note—it’s over there by the peacock feathers.”
Justine all but dove for it. Emma saw her nose wrinkle as she read it.
“Did I lay it on too thick?” Emma asked.
“This is insane,” Justine muttered.
Emma watched her closely. Her gut told her the plan would work. But maybe her gut was an idiot.
Justine looked up. Her dark eyes were frightened. But not as frightened as they had been. “You’re going to send him on a wild-goose chase to Fiebre del Oro?”
“Clever, isn’t it?” Emma couldn’t keep the smugness out of her voice. It wasn’t just clever; it was on the verge of genius. Everyone knew she’d funded Dottie to set up a whorehouse in the gold town up north. It made sense that she’d go there.
Her lusty little note to Hec should prove a successful bit of bait, anyway. He fancied himself a hunter, so she’d play the prey. She’d have the girls set up her room for Hec’s arrival tomorrow. Candlelight, a hot bath, the good Spanish wine set out in the best glasses. Rose petals floating on the surface of the water, she thought in a fit of inspiration. Calla had done that once for the Judge, and it had worked a treat. She’d have Gina and JoBeth lead him upstairs, where they would prepare him for her. He’d like that. They could undress him and bathe him, and maybe give his little soldier a tug if that’s what he was up for. They could feed him the wine until he was all hot and pink from it. Towel him down. Then Gina could read him Seline’s note—Gina was the only one of the two of them who could read, so it would have to be her—while JoBeth acted out all the things Seline promised to do to Hec when he finally found her. That note (and JoBeth’s close attentions) should get Hec into the game. Then he could light out the next morning for Dottie’s place at Fiebre del Oro, where Dottie would have another room ready for him, with her home brew instead of Spanish wine, and her German twins instead of Gina and JoBeth. Emma had sent Blossom’s boy, Henry, on to Fiebre del Oro already, with a second note and instructions for Dottie. She’d paid generously for the German girls’ time and included a nice extra chunk of cash for Dottie too. The twins could keep Hec happily entertained for the night, reading Seline’s promises to him, while they used their plump white bodies on him. The note would send him on to Sutter’s Mill next, to a whorehouse named the Silver Tongue. A whorehouse that didn’t actually exist, but it would take Hec a while to realize it. By the time he’d worked out she’d tricked him and had ridden all the way back to Moke Hill, she’d be safely through Angels Camp and Mariposa, where she’d sell off her shares in her other whorehouses. By the time old Hec reached Angels Camp, she’d be off to San Francisco, to buy herself that nice little house with a view of the bay. And by then she’d be a demure little nobody in gingham—hell, not gingham; surely muslin would be dowdy enough—and men like Hec Boehm wouldn’t look twice at her. She’d be boring Miss Emma Palmer, with reddish hair and not-so-dowdy muslin gowns, tending her cabbage patch and growing freckled in the sun. Hec would be tearing up California looking for a woman who no longer existed.
It was genius.
“Clever!” Justine was shaking. “You think it’s clever?”
Uh-oh. Justine was still mad.
“And what’s he going to do to me when he gets back to Moke Hill?” Justine was looking peaky.
“That’s the cleverest bit!” Emma beamed at her. “That’s when you give him the other note!”
Justine’s hand was starting to clench around the first note, and Emma had to pry it out of her hand. She didn’t fancy rewriting it; she was on a tight schedule. Calla followed her as she moved, jabbing the black nun’s veil into place with hairpins.
“He’ll shoot me before I can give him any more damn notes!” Justine shouted.
“Hush. You don’t want the Koerners to hear you, do you?”
“Tilt your head back,” Calla instructed Emma.
“There’s more to this contraption?” Hell, no wonder nuns were celibate.
Calla laughed and wrapped the wimple-bib around Emma’s neck.
“What’s the other note say?” Justine asked through clenched teeth.
“Just that he’s not to shoot you because you’re going to give him ten percent of the take from now on.”
“It’s perfect! That man would walk over hot coals to pick up a dropped dime. He ain’t going to hurt you if it hurts business, and as we all know, business at the Heart of Gold is good.”
“That ten percent ain’t yours to give away,” Justine raged. “It’s mine!”
“Fine, don’t give it to him, then. But he might shoot you if’n you don’t.”
Justine cast about to see if there was a weapon handy. But the only one was in Emma’s hot little hand.
“You selfish, two-faced . . .”
“Hush, Justine,” Emma snapped. “Stop talking before you say things you’ll regret. I’ve been good to you, and you know I’ve been good to you. It hurts me that you don’t trust me.”
“Trust you! After this!”
Emma frowned. It didn’t matter how nice you were to people; they always wanted to believe the worst of you. “You honestly think I’d treat you bad? After all we’ve been through together?”
“You just did,” Justine said bitterly.
“No, honey, I just saved you from getting shot by Hec Boehm.” Emma moved to the dresser and opened the top drawer. Buried in her tangle of unmentionables was a sheaf of papers. “If you think I’d steal from one of my girls, you don’t know me at all.” She held the papers out to Justine, who looked at them suspiciously.
“My shares in Dottie’s place in Fiebre del Oro. I had Teague put them in your name. It’s a forty percent share. It’ll more than compensate for the ten percent you’ll lose to Hec from this place. It’ll also give you wiggle room if he demands more. You can give him up to forty percent of here, without putting yourself out of pocket. Dottie’s place is the biggest whorehouse in that hellhole; it’s making more than here already. No one but us three here and Dottie need to know you own it. And Calla won’t tell, will you?”
“Nope.” Calla’s voice was muffled. She had her head stuck in the wardrobe. Scavenging through Emma’s gowns, probably, now she knew her ex-boss was leaving town.
Justine wilted. She read the documents, looking peakier by the minute. This time her pinched look was caused by flat-out shame.
“I’m sorry, Seline. I shoulda known you’d treat me fair.”
Yes, she should have. Emma was surprised to find herself on the brink of tears. It shouldn’t hurt to be thought ill of. But it did.
“My name ain’t Seline. It’s Emma,” was all she could manage to say in reply.
Justine nodded and rolled the papers up. “Sister Emma,” she corrected shakily, taking in the getup.
Emma looked down at herself. “You gotta admit, it’s a good plan.”
Justine nodded again, and when she spoke, her voice was tight. “I gotta admit . . . it’s better than I gave you credit for.” She looked like she was going to cry for a moment, but pressed her lips hard together and pushed her emotions back down. That was something they were all good at. You didn’t survive around here if you weren’t. “You might need a belt,” Justine observed.
“I got one!” Calla came crawling out of the wardrobe, waving a belt. In the other hand she was dragging a heavy mass of black wool.
“What the hell is that?” Emma asked.
“I’m coming with you,” Calla said brightly, holding up another habit. “You need someone to show you how to act like a nun! And I want to go south. I got enough money saved to get myself back home.”
“Of course,” Justine muttered, “because getting one nun out of here unseen wasn’t hard enough.”
“Justine . . .” Emma warned.
“I know, boss,” she sighed. “Focus on the solutions, not the problems.”
Tom Slater was barely a day ahead of the bounty hunters. He’d ridden without sleep for more than two days through the blazing August heat, and he wasn’t happy about it. He’d had to send his men on to Mexico without him, while he took this damn fool detour. And all because that crazy Indian wouldn’t keep a low profile. No matter how many times he told the idiot to cut his hair and dress like a white man, Deathrider wouldn’t do it.
“I did that once for your brother,” he said in a bored voice, “and people still tried to kill me.”
“You deserve to get shot,” Tom told him, when he found him in Mariposa.
Deathrider was stretched out in the shade of a black oak, behind the Mariposa bunkhouse, which shared a yard with the fanciest-looking whorehouse Tom had ever seen. The place had so much white trim that it put him in mind of a wedding cake. Its fussy prettiness was in stark contrast to the unpainted timbers of the bunkhouse, which were barely hanging together. The pairing of whorehouse and bunkhouse was probably profitable, no matter how incongruous the buildings looked beside each other; he doubted the men spent much time in the bunkhouse when there were whores so close by. And by the looks of them, these whores were fancy. A few of them were lolling in the shade on the back porch, whispering and shooting cheeky glances at Deathrider. Hell. They probably had every idea who was stretched out here under the black oak. The most wanted man in California, if not the whole west.
Deathrider looked completely at ease, dozing, his dog sleeping in a dusty heap beside him. Deathrider’s old compadre Micah Pearce was also nearby. He was a striking-looking man, with cheekbones like blades and quick dark eyes. Even dressed in a rumpled suit, with his hair crammed up under a hat, he didn’t pass for white. Nor did he want to. Seated out here, on full display, he was as unmistakable as Deathrider. Which wouldn’t serve them at all well when the hunters came to town.
To Tom’s disgust, the book Micah was reading from was the very one that had caused all the fuss when he was in Frisco. “What the hell are you doing? He’s got a price on his head because of that trash.” Tom snatched the book out of Micah’s hands and threw it at Deathrider. It missed him, slapping into the dirt next to the somnolent Indian’s head. Dog startled and gave an irritated bark.
“They’ve got a bet running in Frisco,” Tom warned his friend. “You’ve got to get out of the territory. People all through the goldfields are gambling on who will shoot you first; there’s big money in it.”
Deathrider opened one lazy eye. “You ride here all the way from Oregon to tell me that? You Slater boys have too much energy.”
“I was just getting to the good part,” Micah complained. “We were up to the part where the Plague of the West kidnaps the white boy. I think he plans to drink the kid’s blood.”
“They’re on the hunt for you again,” Tom warned his friend, “and they know you’re here in Mariposa. You got less’n a day on them.”
Deathrider didn’t move. In fact, the blasted fool yawned.
“The prize is up to more’n a hundred dollars!” Tom could have throttled him. He didn’t want to be here in the goldfields, wasting his precious time. He had work to do.
“Is that all?”
“Talk to him, will you?” Tom begged, looking to Micah. “You can usually yap some sense into him.”
“Not sure I want to. For a hundred dollars I might kill him myself.”
Deathrider snorted. “You couldn’t kill a groundhog if you were standing on its tail.”
“No one’d pay me a hundred dollars for a groundhog.”
“It’s all of them this time.” Tom bent and collected the latest Archer dime novel out of the dirt. He rolled it up. “Cactus Joe, Pete Hamble, Irish George and English George, and Kennedy goddamn Voss.”
That got his attention. Kennedy Voss was a sadistic son of a bitch.
“And guess who’s with them?”
“I can’t imagine there’s anyone left,” Deathrider said dryly.
“A.A. Archer herself.”
Deathrider uncoiled like a snake. “I beg your pardon?”
As much as Tom wanted to slap him with the dime novel, he was glad when Deathrider took it out of his hands. It meant the idiot was finally paying attention.
“She’s writing a book about it. The Great Hunt, or some nonsense. She was writing down every word they said. There was a big to-do at LeFoy’s Palladium.”
“How do you know all this?” Deathrider’s long fingers smoothed out the dime novel. It resisted his attentions, curling up again.
“Are you even listening to me? Everyone within miles of San Francisco knows. The place was a circus. They went from bar to bar, whipping up interest. And then there was an accounting at LeFoy’s, where each bet was recorded in a book. Every man and his dog was betting against you. And that Archer woman was following along, writing it all down.”
“I don’t know why she bothers. She makes it all up anyway,” Micah said.
“Who has the best odds?” Deathrider asked.
“Voss, by a mile.”
“I should lay a bet,” Micah mused.
Tom shot him a horrified look.
“Don’t look so peaky. I know where my loyalties lie.” Micah grinned. “And only a white man would be stupid enough to bet against White Wolf.”
“You say they’re a day away?” Deathrider was thumbing through the battered book.
“If that.” Tom didn’t like the smile hovering at his friend’s mouth. Deathrider didn’t usually smile. The sight of it was unnerving.
“I’ve always wanted to meet the author,” he said quietly. “Maybe she can sign my copy.”
Tom didn’t know which was more frightening, the smile, or the moment when it disappeared. “Even if the author is accompanied by a dozen hardened killers?” he asked, exasperated.
There was no response.
“Matt was right,” he complained. Deathrider wasn’t even listening to his arguments. “You’re as hardheaded as a rhinoceros.”
“I’ve never seen a rhinoceros,” Micah said. “But I expect they’re not much different from buffalo. Buffalo have powerful hard heads.”
Tom ignored him. “You could come to Mexico with me, the both of you. I can always use more hands on the trail, and by the time we’re back up this way, the whole mess will have blown over.”
“You think we could find more of these dime novels?” Deathrider asked, as though Tom hadn’t even spoken. He was absorbed by the crumpled copy of The Plague of the West Rides Again. He read it silently, licking his thumb occasionally to turn a page.
“You want to read more of that rubbish?” If he didn’t know better, he would think Deathrider was drunk. But Deathrider had barely touched a drop since that trouble he’d gotten into with Matt in Kearney. It was too dangerous when a man might sneak up on you any minute and shoot you clean through.
“I bet some of those whores have a book or two.” Micah scrambled to his feet. He didn’t need much encouragement to visit the whorehouse across the yard.
Deathrider nodded like that was sage advice.
“You ain’t serious.” Maybe they were both drunk. Hadn’t they heard him? Kennedy Voss was coming.
But they were serious. Seriously walking toward the wedding cake of a whorehouse, looking for more dime novels, even though a posse of men was headed here at breakneck speed, each looking to be the one to shoot Deathrider and take his head back to Frisco.
This was why Tom liked cows better than people. At least a cow made sense. Feed it, water it, keep it close to its herd, and it went where you wanted it to go. Not like people. People made no damn sense in the least.
“Have you read this?” Deathrider called over his shoulder, holding up the battered dime novel.
Of course he hadn’t damn well read it.
“You might find it educational,” Deathrider told him.
Tom didn’t deign to answer that.
“Especially since you’re in it.” Deathrider was halfway across the yard before Tom registered what he’d said.
Deathrider kept walking.
“What do you mean, ‘since you’re in it’?”
Deathrider tossed the book over his shoulder. Tom fumbled to catch it.
“Have a look at page seventy-five,” Deathrider called back at him.
No. No, no, no. Please, no.
But there it was, in black and white, on page seventy-five: his own name. Tom Slater.
As a snake sheds its skin, so the Plague of the West sheds his names, slithering westward, now in Indian buckskins, now in denim and cotton; yesterday he went by the name Deathrider, today he dresses like a white man, with a white man’s name. Today he is Tom Slater. One of the infamous Slater Brothers.
Oh no. No, no, no, no. This wasn’t happening. What in hell was his name doing in there? And what was this rubbish about the infamous Slater Brothers? Infamous for what? His brothers did nothing more exciting than split wood and read their children to sleep at night. And as for him, the real Tom Slater, all he’d done for years was drive cattle up and down the country. He certainly hadn’t been slithering westward, kidnapping and . . . ah hell, drinking blood.
“Nate!” he yelled after Deathrider. “What in hell is my name doing in here?”
Deathrider shrugged. “You’ll have to ask the lady when she gets here.”
“Maybe you’re in one of the other books too,” Micah suggested. “You might even be as famous as White Wolf.”
“Might be worse than that,” Deathrider said mildly, pushing open the back door to the whorehouse. “Stay,” he instructed his dog. Dog obeyed, plonking himself down right in Tom’s way.
“Worse?” Tom clambered over the dog. “What in hell does that mean?” He had a bad feeling about this.
That bad feeling only got stronger when they entered the whorehouse, plunging through the kitchen and into the main parlor. It wasn’t just that the place was as frothy on the inside as it looked on the outside, or that it stank like a perfume bottle. No. Tom’s dread came from the way the madam lit up when she saw them. And from the name that exploded from her.
Tom had never seen the woman before in his life. He would have remembered. He racked his brains. No. No memory at all of a tall brunette, let alone one in yards of orange skirts with her breasts exploding out of her bodice.
What in hell was happening? The real Tom Slater watched in astonishment as the whore threw her arms around Deathrider and just about squeezed the life out of him.
Deathrider showed no surprise. Not even a flicker.
“Oh, Tom,” the whore said, pulling back to look up at him, “I thought you might have left. We’re in powerful need of some help.”
“Tom . . .?” Tom couldn’t keep the anger out of his voice. “Tom. I think we need to talk.”
“You’d better explain yourself.”
They were upstairs in the madam’s office. It was a plain room, with a solid desk, neatly stacked with papers, with the quills and inkpots lined up like soldiers next to the ledgers; it was the desk of a very neat person. A very businesslike neat person. It looked nothing like the rest of the house.
Micah had opted to stay downstairs with the whores and a freshly uncorked bottle of brandy. He was a peaceable man, and this didn’t look to be a peaceable conversation.
“How many names do you go by?” Tom snapped.
“More than I care to remember.”
“Well, I want mine back.”
“You can’t blame me for this one,” Deathrider told him calmly. “This is Matt’s fault.”
Of course it was. Tom wished his younger brother were here, so he could slap him upside the head. Trust Matt to make a bad situation worse. He listened as Deathrider outlined their adventures the year before, about getting shot in Kearney, about his infection and about Matt’s crazy plan to fake Deathrider’s death and pass him off as his brother instead. Tom had heard parts of the story before, but he’d certainly never heard the part where Deathrider had gone by the name Tom Slater. What kind of idiot was his brother? He’d known Deathrider was a hunted man, and he hadn’t said a goddamn word about this mess to Tom. How could he not have even warned his brother that the men out to kill Deathrider would be looking for one Tom Slater? The full import of it hit Tom like a stampede. Holy hell. Those men riding out from Frisco might end up on his trail.
Tom had to work hard to keep his temper, and he wasn’t a man usually prone to anger. Just wait till he got back to Utopia. Matt would learn what a horse whip was really for.
After a long silence, when it was clear Tom’s temper wasn’t going to slip its leash, Deathrider finally spoke again. “Let me see what Ella wants. Then we’ll go through those books and find out what’s been said about you. If I can fix it, I will.”
“Fix it?” Tom was finding it hard to stay calm. “How on earth can you fix it? My name is in that goddamn book! It’s not like you can erase every copy!”
Deathrider’s eerily pale eyes were as cool as ever. “No. But she can always write another book.”
Tom was startled into a bitter laugh. “Sure. Because she’s prone to telling the truth.”
“People can be persuaded.” His tone was arctic, and that terrifying ghost of a smile was back on his lips. The door clicked behind him as he left.
Tom flung the book at the closed door. It hit with a sad little smack and didn’t make him feel better in the slightest. He should never have come to Mariposa. He should have gone with Emilio and the boys. He should just go now. He glanced at the open window. There was still plenty of daylight. But the thought of the trail was almost too much to bear. He needed sleep. He’d managed a couple of naps in the saddle, but it wasn’t enough to keep a man going.
He sank into the chair behind the desk. He wasn’t sure he had it in him to ever get up again. All the fight seemed to have gone out of him. Why had he come here anyway? Deathrider could look after himself. Tom could have just sent one of his men; he didn’t have to come in person. Despite the heat of the sun throbbing through waxed blinds at the window, the world suddenly seemed gray and cold and limp. He had what his father used to call the saddle sads. They were prone to hitting when you stopped moving. It’s nothing a decent feed and a good night’s sleep won’t improve, he used to say. Luke and Matt said it now, usually to their wives in the midst of an argument. It often made the argument worse. I’m not tired, you idiot, Alex would shout (she was more of a shouter than Matt’s wife, who tended to go terrifyingly silent when she was really mad), stop telling me I’m tired. Tom was glad to be out of the house, really. Home had changed. Once, it had just been the three of them: Luke, Matt and him. But now home was chaos. Happy chaos, but chaos just the same. It was full to the rafters since Matt and Georgiana had arrived with their pack of kids. They were building a place of their own, but it wouldn’t be finished for a good long while. Tom had moved up to the attic to give them more space until then. It was odd how lonely it felt being in such a full house, listening to voices drift upstairs, tripping over boots and wooden toys. It seemed like the more people they crammed into the house, the lonelier he felt. When he’d left at the end of spring, he’d been ready for the quiet of the trail. On the trail, it made sense to feel lonely. And at least you were moving, heading somewhere—hopefully away from the mixed-up empty feeling that welled up inside you when you stopped.
A knock at the door startled him out of his broody thoughts, and a woman came in with a tray. She didn’t look to be a whore. She was dressed in simple homespun, with an apron tied neatly around her waist.
“Don’t get up,” she scolded, when he made to stand. “Tom says you’re half-dead from the trail.”
Tom. His temper flared again. He was Tom.
“I’ve brought coffee and fresh biscuits. They’re still warm from the pan, and trust me, you’ll want to eat them while they’re hot. It’s Seline’s recipe, and she’s the best cook this side of the Rocky Mountains. She puts me to shame.” She put the tray on the edge of the desk. “And Tom said to send you in some books.” She turned and looked over her shoulder at the open door. “Come on, Winnie.”
A shy little girl crept through the open door. She couldn’t have been more than ten, and she was all but dwarfed by the stack of books she was carrying. Each and every one of them dime novels, Tom saw.
“Thank you,” he said, even though the words felt stuck in his gullet. How many of those stupid books had his name in them?
The woman took the books off the girl and put them on the desk in front of Tom. “I’m Anna and this is Winnie.”
“Nice to be meeting you. I’m . . . Tom.” He’d be damned if he was letting Deathrider keep his name.
“Another Tom.” She smiled at him. He forced himself to smile back. There was no another about it. He was Tom. He took up a book, to keep from saying something he might regret. It wasn’t Anna’s fault he was in a mood. Or that Deathrider and Matt were imbeciles, or that this wretched Archer woman was a bigger liar than Mephistopheles . . . It was just the way things were, he thought grimly.
“Don’t bend the cover,” Anna scolded Tom as she poured his coffee. “That one’s my favorite.”
He hadn’t been aware of his hand clenching around the book. He unclenched and glanced at the cover. There was an etching of a wild mountain man and a swooning woman. Presumably, the woman was swooning because of the bear looming over them. The mountain man should have been paying more attention to the bear and less attention to the woman, in Tom’s opinion.
“That’s the story of Little Bill Lench and the Widow Dell,” Anna sighed moonily.
“I assume they survive the bear,” Tom said dryly, taking the coffee from her.
“Oh yes, indeed. Little Bill makes her a lovely bearskin coat out of it.” Anna passed him a jug of cream. He shook his head. He liked his coffee black. And in quantity. The dainty china cup she’d given him held barely a thimbleful. He tossed it back and reached for the pot.
“I feel sorry for the bear,” the little girl said in a half whisper. Tom glanced up. She was clinging close to the door, watching him with cautious eyes.
“The bear!” Anna snorted. She was busy sawing biscuits in half and slathering them with butter. She piled them on a plate and passed them to Tom. “That bear would have eaten them up, my girl, just like Mr. Tom here is going to eat up these biscuits.”
“Would you like one?” Tom offered the plate to the girl.
Her eyes widened, and she shook her head vigorously. “I’m not to take things from strange men.” She paused. “Or any men.”
Anna smiled. “Good girl.” She buttered another biscuit and handed it to the girl herself. “We’re strict on that,” she told Tom, “this being a house of ill repute and all. We don’t want any nasties taking advantage of our girl, do we, Winnie?”
Winnie shook her head. She’d already crammed half the biscuit in her mouth.
He hated to think of the kind of men who’d take advantage of a girl as young as Winnie. “Is she your daughter?” he asked Anna.
“Oh bless, no. Though I’m touched you think I could turn out something as pretty as Winnie.”
“I’m an orphan,” Winnie told him gravely.
“Poor little mite,” Anna clucked. “She was half-starved when she came begging at the kitchen door last winter. Ella let me take her on, on condition that she earn her keep.”
“I clean out the fireplaces,” the girl told Tom proudly.
“And you do a right good job of it too.” Anna tugged at her braid.
The coffee was doing its task. Tom’s saddle sads were retreating. He poured himself another cup and turned his attention to the biscuits. “They’re good,” he admitted, relaxing against the chair back in pure pleasure. He hadn’t eaten a hot meal in days. The biscuits were buttery and just slightly crumbly; they melted in his mouth.
“Everything at La Noche is good,” Anna said primly. “Pleasure is our business.”
Tom kept his gaze on his plate. He didn’t want her thinking he wanted any other pleasure than coffee and biscuits. He was too tired for whoring. He wasn’t much for it at the best of times, to be honest, and he certainly wasn’t in the mood this afternoon, no matter how fine and fancy those whores downstairs had looked.
“Come on, Winnie, let’s leave Mr. Tom to his reading.” Anna held her hand out to the little girl. “Mr. Slater said he’d be back directly,” she told Tom.
A chunk of biscuit lodged in his throat when she called Deathrider “Mr. Slater.”
“You should read the new one first,” the little girl told him, her words coming in a nervous rush. “It’s about a lady and a mail-order groom.”
“Oh yes, that one’s delightful,” Anna agreed as she led the child from the room, “and it has our Mr. Slater in it too!”
Did it now? Tom picked through the stack of books until he found the one they meant. It was so cheaply printed that the newsprint had bled across the cover. His stomach dropped when he saw the title. The Notorious Widow Smith and her Mail-Order Husband.
Oh God. It was about Matt and Georgiana. He felt sick as he thumbed through it. It wasn’t accurate, but it was close enough to the truth to be recognizable. At least the beginning was: it had Georgiana’s advertisement and the flock of suitors who answered it. But then the book introduced the Slater brothers: Matt and Tom. Matt was a hulking brute with all the intelligence of a stuffed moose (she got that right enough, Tom thought uncharitably), and then there was Matt’s brother. Tom Slater. The Plague of the West. A shape-shifting Indian, who could turn himself into a wolf at will, and could also appear as a white man. At this point, the novel diverged considerably from fact. And not in a good way. Tom’s skin crawled as he read about the exploits of the notorious widow and her brutish husband. And every time he saw his own name, he jerked, as though snakebit.
By the time Deathrider returned, Tom had finished the scurrilous rag and was in a filthy temper.
His friend paused in the doorway. “I’d hoped some food and rest might have improved your outlook.”
“It did,” Tom snapped. “Without it, I might have belted you. Do you have any idea what that woman has said about us?” He waved the book.
“Me. All mixed up with you. Us.”
Deathrider nodded. “I have some idea.” He closed the door and leaned against it. “But we have other problems right now.”
“Well . . . They have problems.”
“Why do you always talk in riddles?” The whole day had taken on a nightmarish cast. Tom knew it was partly because he hadn’t slept, but how in hell could he sleep, knowing a posse was on its way, and Tom Slater was in their sights? Deathrider/Tom Slater or him, what did it matter? None of them had ever seen Deathrider in the flesh, so how were they to know which was which? One Tom Slater would be as good as another. “Who has time for riddles, goddamn it. Haven’t you listened to a word I’ve said? There’s a hunt on. For us.”
“You said you’re headed for Mexico?” Deathrider asked.
“I was, before I got snarled up in this nightmare.”
“You need to sleep, Slater,” his friend told him. “You’re wound tighter than a clock spring.”
“Nate,” Tom said tersely, rising from his seat, “you listen to me, and you listen to me good: they’re less than a day behind me, and they’re armed to the teeth. If we don’t get out of here now, we’re going to be hunting trophies.”
“I believe you.” Deathrider met his gaze. His icy eyes were steady and grave. Finally. He was listening. “We’ll ride out before morning.”
Tom let out his breath. He hadn’t been aware he’d been holding it. “Good.”
“I’ll take care of everything,” Deathrider promised, “provisions, extra mounts: everything. And while I do that, I need you to get some sleep.” He cut Tom off when he made to protest. “You’ll need to be fresh. The next few days are going to involve some hard riding.”
“There’s no time.”
“There’s the time it will take me to get things organized. Use it. Ella said you can use her room. Get some shut-eye. You’re no good to us without it.”
“Us?” Reluctantly, Tom followed his friend through to the madam’s bedroom.
“Yeah, us.” Deathrider yanked the bedroom blinds down, blocking the late-afternoon sun. “Now shut up and sleep. We’ll leave after moonset tonight, when it’s dark.”
He was getting his way, Tom realized. He’d done it. The stubborn Indian was actually going to be leaving town with him.
But if he was getting his way, why did he feel so uneasy? There was something in Deathrider’s expression he didn’t like. Something about the way he said the word us.
Who was us?