The most notorious love letters in American history—supposedly destroyed a century ago—mysteriously reappear, and become the coveted prize in a fierce battle for possession that brings back to life the lawless world evoked in the letters themselves.
Lisa Balamaro is an ambitious arts lawyer with a secret crush on her most intriguing client: former rodeo rider and reformed art forger, Tuck Mercer. In his newfound role as expert in Old West artifacts, Tuck gains possession of the supposedly destroyed correspondence between Doc Holliday and his cousin and childhood sweetheart, Mattie—who would become Sister Mary Melanie of the Sisters of Mercy.
Given the unlikelihood the letters can ever be fully authenticated, Tuck retains Lisa on behalf of the letters’ owner, Rayella Vargas, to sell them on the black market. But the buyer Tuck finds, a duplicitous judge from the Tombstone area, has other, far more menacing ideas.
As Lisa works feverishly to make things right, Rayella secretly enlists her ex-marine boyfriend in a daring scheme of her own.
When the judge learns he's been blindsided, he rallies a cadre of armed men for a deadly standoff reminiscent of the moment in history that made Doc famous: The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.
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|Edition description:||2nd ed.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.61(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Don't look for the innocent here. You won't find them.
Start with Lisa Balamaro.
Prodigal daughter, born into what many would consider American royalty, she had no use for that old canard that there are no second acts in American life. Though only twenty-eight years old, she'd already been obliged to crawl out from the wreckage she'd made of herself.
In her first year of law school, after an all-night party upstate in the Hudson Valley, she foolishly chose to drive all the way back to the Bronx at daybreak. Blind drunk, she fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the Taconic Parkway into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing an airporter van, and only coming to rest upon impact with an old-growth hickory.
The airbag saved her, nominally: a separated shoulder, both cheeks broken, a gaping wound above her right eye--she still bore the scar. A broken rib punctured a lung, another tore into her liver, while her seatbelt ruptured her intestines. Even so, she lived.
For a middle child already seen as the family letdown--father a revered jurist, mother a force in Philadelphia charity circles, golden-boy older brother clerking for Justice Breyer, beautiful younger sister serving an internship in Brussels with NATO--this particular disaster (it wasn't the first) proved transformative.
Coffin, meet final nail.
Ironically, as her family turned away, she found new direction within. And so she knew it could be done, knew what it took to make it happen: to change. It explained her preference for misfits, outcasts, the failed and forgotten--why else represent artists?
Why else feel so committed to a man like Tuck Mercer?
His face--deeply lined from the sun, with that chiseled roughness that speaks of the West-possessed the watchful patience of a man who's earned each and every one of his forty-three years on this earth. And yet a wistful humor abided in his eyes as well. That hint of charitable grace provided the wary a reason to loosen their spines, unbuckle their shoulders, and return his smile.
An aura of loss hovered about him as well, an impression intensified by his limp and the occasional reliance on a maple walking stick with an ivory lion's head grip.
The irony of this impression, with its palette of hard-earned toughness and wise, affable charm, lay in the fact that most people, if they knew what's commonly referred to as the truth, would have considered nearly half his life wasted.
How else to regard the eight years in prison, or the decade before when he earned the right to his cell?
To Lisa's way of thinking, that all just added further testament to his capacity for self-transformation, for in truth Tuck had reinvented himself not just once, but twice.
Up until age eighteen, he'd been an up-and-comer on the rodeo circuit, earning side money as a sketch artist, exhibiting no small talent in either realm. But then the door to the future he'd been scheming got slammed shut for good, after which, through two hard years of dogged patience and meticulous practice, he transformed himself into an art forger.
Not just some slapdash hack, either. They would come to call him The Man Who Forged the West, for he could claim responsibility for over two hundred fake Blumenscheins, Blakelocks, Schreyvogels, Catlins, even the occasional Farny or Remington and one wildly convincing Georgia O'Keefe, a fair share of his pieces still gracing the walls of mansions, galleries, and museums throughout the world, the great majority in China.
Nothing lasts forever, of course, especially in matters of crime. Tuck was betrayed, apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted, all of which eventually produced his second transformation.
Since leaving prison, he'd "gone legit," working with the same galleries, foundations, and auction houses he'd bamboozled for a decade, now consulting on the provenance of artwork depicting the American West, pieces that came into their possession through purchase or bequeathal or estate endowment.
He'd uncovered not a few creditable fakes and confirmed a handful of genuine finds.
Lisa helped negotiate that transition.
He'd been one of her first clients when she'd uprooted herself from the east coast, hoping to escape all its backsliding ghosts, and relocated to San Francisco. She'd staked her fledgling reputation on the irreversible nature of Tuck's turn toward legitimacy and reliability, which helped explain the strength of the connection between them.
It wasn't just a case of client and counsel, or even troubled saint and gifted sinner. They'd established a genuine rapport in their work together, grown close over long walks in Golden Gate Park, leisurely lunches and dinners at Greens and The Slanted Door, late night talks about the addictive power of hatred, the strangely liberating silence of God, the inscrutable allure of romance.
That closeness explained the walking stick. Lisa found it while wandering antique shops in the tiny outposts of rural Sonoma, and instantly recognized the elegant, simple instrument as a fitting gift for her newfound friend, for she knew Tuck's limp was not feigned or exaggerated, a ploy to inspire pity--or trust. The injury was real and had never truly healed.
Which returns us to what cut short his earliest dreams, slamming the door on that long-lost future.
He'd been eighteen, showing off for a girl he had no right to love--a sixteen-year-old whose portrait, clothed and otherwise, he'd secretly sketched or painted dozens of times. At La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros in Tucson, he chose to ride a bucking longhorn named Crater Maker, who showed him where dreams end, and nothingness begins.
The rodeo clown trailing them from the chute had failed to turn the bull away from Tuck's riding hand. The steer bucked him off, but a suicide wrap delayed impact--the animal dragged him one-armed a full thirty yards.
When he finally did break free, the bull turned before he could scramble to his feet. Its hooves crushed his ribs into splinters. One horn, despite the dulled tip, plowed deep into his pelvis, butchering muscle, ripping arteries like thread.
Tuck dropped into unconsciousness then coma, lying near death for days. When he finally blinked awake in the ICU on the third night--lying there alone, packed tight in gauze and strapped to a thousand tubes--it took several moments for the situation to register.
He lay like that for some time, eyes open in the dim smeary light, taking in that unique smell every hospital has, the fragrance of bad luck, nothing but his howling mind for company, while the room maintained its terrible welcoming silence.
Even then he knew he'd crossed some crucial border, the dividing line between the cowboy career he'd lost for good, the love the fates had stolen back with it--her family would make damn sure she never saw him again--and the lonely, angry years of deceit ahead.
But now, twenty-five years on, three years since walking out of Leavenworth, he sipped from a glass of his favorite whiskey, Connemara Cask Strength, and entertained his young brunette lawyer-cum-amiga with her distinctive scar, arcing around her eye like a wicked red whiptail.
They sat across from each other in the third-floor studio of the Queen Anne Victorian he'd purchased with honest money, refurbished with his own hands.
Meanwhile, in the leather wingback armchair across from him, Lisa nursed her tea and wondered at the reason she was there. He'd said he had a surprise, one that would "knock her over."
Secretly, she enjoyed the idea of being knocked over--no one changes that completely. And as she sat there, watching him, listening to his gravelly voice, patiently waiting him out, she found herself wanting nothing so much as to have him put down his glass, gather his cane, cross the space between them, and ravage her.CHAPTER 2
"Close your eyes for a sec."
She obeyed with a smile, trembling. Here we go. Wish, and you shall receive.
She imagined him leaning down, lifting her chin as she closed her eyes--better yet, clutching her hair in his fist and pulling her head back, not rough or mean.\ Riderly.
Then a long, stubbled, hungry kiss ...
"Like I said, got something here to show you."
With that, he finally rose from his chair. She could hear the taut leather creak and sigh as he gained his feet.
She clung to her hope for a kiss but then he passed, heading toward the cluttered workspace behind her, trailing a brusque whiff of cologne and Irish single malt.
Her heart tripped over itself for a second, wondering if she'd misread the signals. She'd kept her longings under wraps for some time now--or hoped she had. As a lawyer, she'd developed an expertise in keeping secrets--at least, those of others.
A soughing groan beyond the door, a rustle of cloth--he tugged up his trouser leg to kneel, she thought, the groan a giveaway. Then the ticking sound of the whirling tumblers on his vault, the crunch of the lever, the heavy door gliding open.
He has a present for you, nimrod--a necklace, a bracelet, a sketch he made, maybe provocative, possibly nude. Something precious. Something in need of hiding.
After a moment she heard the vault door close again and another small moan of nagging effort as he regained his feet.
Her pulse shivered in her wrist like a minnow as something soft dropped invitingly onto the engraved copper tray, perched atop an antique quilted bench, that served as a coffee table.
"Go ahead," he told her. "Look."
She did so, blinking for a moment.
"Have any idea what you're looking at?"
A packet about the size of a handbag, wrapped in weathered velvet and tied with frayed ribbon, rested between them on the copper tray.
Lisa began to reach for it--an innocent impulse, intending to inspect its distinctively angular sag and bulge more closely--but then felt a sudden reluctance. And disappointment. It wasn't for her. Not in the way she'd hoped.
"If I had to guess, I'd say ... letters?"
Tuck smiled. "Not just any letters. Most infamous love letters in the history of the United States."
You Nighted States. Lisa regarded the packet more mindfully, still resisting the impulse to touch.
Pouring himself another two fingers of whiskey. "Sure I can't tempt you?"
She offered a wan smile then leaned across the coffee table, reached for his hand, pulled it toward her, and inhaled from the glass. The aroma conjured peat smoke, warm caramel, and a prom dress spackled with vomit--one of her other disasters.
"How heavenly." She sat back, collecting her mug of tea. "But you understand."
Tuck offered a sweet, heartbreaking smile. "Course I do."
Her cheeks warmed. "So--these letters, how did you happen to come upon them?"
He cocked an eyebrow. "Suspicious?"
"We're way past that. Call me curious."
"Tell you how they got here in a minute. First, guess who wrote them."
Lisa possessed one of those rare lawyerly minds not inclined to a fondness for riddles. "I can think of nothing more tedious."
Tuck, swirling the whiskey now. That southwestern drawl: "You're no fun."
"You have no idea how often I hear that."
"Oh for the love of mud--they're the letters Doc Holliday and his cousin Mattie, the one that became a nun, wrote back and forth after he left Georgia."
The packet exerted its gravity more seriously now. Lisa couldn't help but stare at the humble ribbon, the worn velvet.
"I thought those letters didn't exist."
"They don't. They were burned. Too scandalous, too much a threat to the family's reputation-or the nun's. They got destroyed by Sister Melanie herself--that's the name she took when she upped with the Sisters of Mercy."
Lisa had more than a passing acquaintance with nuns. Not so much gamblers or gun-toting dentists. "That's beginning to ring a bell. The whiff of scandal, I mean."
"The name Melanie's kinda intriguing on its own. Nuns usually take the names of saints, or did prior to Vatican II. There's only two saints named Melanie, and one of them married her first cousin. Interesting choice of name, then, don't you think, given the rumors she and Doc were sweethearts?"
Lisa stared into her tea. As a girl, she'd memorized the canon of saints and their grim biographies the way boys learn by heart the stats on baseball cards. She remembered a Melania the Younger, but wasn't the marriage against her will?
"There's more," Tuck said. "Ever read Gone with The Wind?"
Lisa snapped to. "Read? No."
"Seen the movie?"
"Well, Scarlet O'Hara's sister Melanie was based on Guess Who. Margaret Mitchell, the woman who wrote the book, was kin to the Hollidays."
Lisa settled a bit deeper into her chair, a girl getting told a story. Not quite the same as being ravaged, but ...
"Apparently, when Doc died in Glenwood Springs, someone gathered up his belongings and shipped them back to Atlanta. Specifically, to Mattie, who was Sister Melanie by then. She'd entered the convent four years before. Some think it broke Doc's heart. To finally realize: no, it would never happen, they would never be together. Not in this life. There's some evidence he converted to Catholicism near the end, as though to get himself ready for a second chance to be with her in the beyond."
How utterly Romeo-and-Juliet, Lisa thought. And kind of creepy.
"Among Doc's things were the letters Mattie wrote to him all those years. But the good sister felt so concerned about propriety she refused to go to the train station in Atlanta to pick up the trunk when it arrived from Colorado. She sent her uncle instead."
"Hypocritical pride, more like."
Tuck rose uneasily from his chair, collected his whiskey in one hand, walking stick the other, and shambled over to the window. "Whole damn family was jittery as June bugs when it came to scandal. Some of them even denied Doc was any relation. Rest just chose not to discuss him."
Every family has its black sheep, she thought. Ahem.
"Then around the 1930s, not too long before Mattie died, a few new books about Wyatt Earp came out, stirring up all the old rumors."
"And mentioned Dr. Shoot-em-Up, I imagine."
"He didn't come out miserably, but he hardly got canonized, neither. Virgil Earp's wife, Allie, openly despised him. Even Josie, Wyatt's wife, referred to him as 'an irascible tubercular' and 'the misanthropic dentist.' Said his devotion to Wyatt was more liability than benefit and the friendship only survived out of pity."
Friendships don't survive out of pity, she thought. If only.
"But that was nothing compared to the blowback from the anti-Earp contingent back in Arizona. The kindest thing Doc got called was a touchy drunk. Before she died, Mattie confided that if only people could read Doc's letters, they'd know he wasn't the sick, heartless bastard everybody made him out to be."
Lisa, flinching inadvertently at touchy drunk, said, "Shame she destroyed them then. The letters, I mean. Unless ..."
Tuck turned back from the window, pointing with his glass at the ribboned packet. "Exactly.
She said she destroyed them. What if our dear Sister of Mercy lied?"CHAPTER 3
On the drive across town to her office, Lisa suffered the relentless temptation to pull over, open the small black Pelican case in which Tuck had secured the packet of letters, and venture a glance. But she proved unable to so much as stop the car, let alone unlock the small hard-shell case, untie the fragile ribbon, and peek inside the velvet.
Tuck had already identified a motivated buyer through channels he'd established in the world of western art and artifacts--a retired judge and noted collector who owned a ranch at the edge of the Dragoon Mountains northeast of Tombstone--but when it came time to make the call he put Lisa on the line for the pitch. The judge agreed to a rendezvous. "Why not tomorrow--there any problem with that?"
Given the need to move quickly, Tuck had insisted she not just take the letters with her but read a few, acquaint herself with their texture, their smell, the script, the words themselves, the better to assess their value.
"They've been boxed up tight for a good long while," he'd said. "Won't be no worse for wear if you leaf through a couple. Just take reasonable care. Besides, they're not real, remember? They don't exist."
* * *
The offices of Barragan & Balamaro--"Creative Law for Creative People"--took up the whole first floor of an ivy-covered, bay-windowed Italianate mansion overlooking Fay Park on Russian Hill. The house belonged to Nico Barragan, Lisa's law partner.
They'd met during her first year law of law school at Fordham. A graduate assistant at the time, he led a symposium on art and the law at the Brooklyn Museum that basically changed her life. Good God, she'd thought. Being an attorney can be fun.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday"
Copyright © 2018 David Corbett.
Excerpted by permission of Black Opal Books.
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