Authors: Delynn Royer
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Romantic Comedy, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
Cole let his palm slide over her stomach and back down over a hip to her thigh as he moved closer. He was aroused. "What poem?" He nipped at her earlobe.
She jumped a little, and Cole felt her hand come to rest on his shoulder, bracing him gently. "It wasn't a poem exactly, it was just this stupid story my mother read to me. I don't remember the name of it."
Cole raised his head to look into her eyes, eyes that were lying. "What was this stupid story about?"
"None of your business."
"A mite touchy, aren't you, your ladyship?"
She raised an eyebrow. "You're a fine one to talk about being touchy."
He ran his hand back up along the curving line of her waist to cup a breast. "I can't help it. You're here and you're beautiful and..."
She sighed and closed her eyes as Cole played his thumb over the stiffening crest. She wouldn't push him away. He knew that by the way she gripped his shoulder. He felt his own body reacting to her closeness as he bent his head again to bury his face in her hair.
"And what?" she prodded.
Cole raised his head reluctantly to finish. "And when a beautiful lady tells me she loves me, well, it's not something I can ignore."
She frowned, her eyes fluttering open. "I didn't say any such thing."
"I don't believe you."
"It's the truth."
His retort stuck in his throat and died there. Her denial belied what was laid bare in her eyes. For a girl who made her living at it, she sure didn't lie very well.
He kissed her, parting her lips, touching her tongue with his own, then he nuzzled her neck again. It was good. He felt her fingers slipping through his hair as he moved down still lower to taste one breast.
She let out a little sound, and that's all it took. That sound. He knew he would make love to her again. He shifted position, pushing away the sheet that covered her and sliding down lower so that he could rain a column of kisses down her stomach. He moved over her, palming her hips, holding her still as he played with his tongue across her navel.
She caught her breath. "Oh, my, what are you doing? Where are you going?"
"I told you, Miss Pierce. I'm a trained investigator. I'm driven to investigate."
She laughed. "It tickles."
Cole squinted at her, feigning insult. "Tickles? This isn't suppose to tickle, Miss Pierce. This is supposed to—"
They were surprised by an urgent pounding on the door. Gwin sat up like a spring, and Cole found himself shoved out of bed. He thwacked his head on the edge of the night table on his way down to the floor. "Ouch!"
He sat up just as Gwin was scrambling to cover herself. "Who could it be?"
Another knock and they heard Arthur’s voice from the hall. "Gwinnie? Are you awake? Let me in! Something’s happened!”
Cole rubbed the back of his head where he suspected a new lump would be forming on top of the old lump he'd gotten from jumping the train. He realized only then that Gwin was so rattled, she was staring at the closed door, speechless. "Geez, Gwin, answer him before he breaks the door down.”
She snapped out of it. "Uh … I can't let you in, Arthur! I'm not dressed. What's wrong?"
"Cole's gone! He's
“No, Arthur, it’s fine.” Gwin hesitated but a second before coming up with a stretcher that did her family heritage proud. “He told me he was going out early this morning to go pick up our things at the Prices’.”
Arthur sounded puzzled. "But his bed is still made. It looks like he never came back last night."
“Well … he always makes his bed in the morning."
"He does? How do you know?"
“Why’d he have to be born so smart?” Gwin muttered, then raised her voice again for Arthur’s benefit. "He's a Pinkerton man. What do you expect?"
There was a short silence while Arthur apparently thought this over. "Oh."
"Go on back to your room, Arthur. I'll be right over as soon as I'm dressed."
"When Cole comes back, can we go for breakfast?"
"Sure we can. Go on, now."
"Okay." Arthur's footsteps padded back down the hall.
Gwin rested a hand over her heart and looked at Cole. "That was close."
"You don't want him to know?"
"Lord, no. He wouldn't understand."
Cole recalled his birds and bees talk with the boy. "You may be right.” Then he had another thought and offered her his hand. "A little help up?"
When she took his hand, he pulled, and she tumbled onto the floor with him. Before she could get her bearings, he had her flipped onto her back and pinned. He grasped her firmly by each wrist.
"Cole!" She struggled, but it was a half-hearted effort. "Stop fooling around. Arthur's going to wonder what's taking me so—"
"He can wait."
"No, he can't. We don't have time for this."
"We have time to get one thing straight, Gwin. Last night, you said you'd think about going to San Francisco with me. Now I want an answer."
"Are you going to let me up if I say no?"
"Absolutely not. Granted, they'll eventually have to slip crackers under the door to keep us from starving."
"This isn't funny."
"My first responsibility is to Arthur."
"So is mine."
She frowned. "You really mean that, don't you?"
"I won't let anything happen to either of you. I promise you that. Just give me a week."
"One week. If we don't come up with any leads by then, I'll buy your tickets and put you on a train myself."
She studied his face. "Do you know something that I don't?"
"All I have are a few hunches, but those won't lead anywhere unless we work together."
Neither of them moved, and she didn't say anything for a long time. Then, "All right. One week. Now, can I get up?"
Cole smiled and ran his gaze down the length of her. "Since time is of the essence, I suppose I'll have to say yes ... with regrets."
He released her, and she sat up, crossing her arms across her breasts. "Honestly, Shepherd, all this takes some getting used to, you know?"
He had to agree with her. It did take getting used to. He doubted, however, that they would have much time for that. One week.
Jasper Barnes jumped down from the California Street cable car with an agility that belied his rotund physique. In the wake of his billowing Inverness cape, the closemouthed Mr. Ringo followed dutifully at his heels.
"Just like him, isn't it?" Jasper demanded as he puffed the rest of the way across the cobblestone street. "To run off without telling a soul! What could he be thinking?"
Jasper wasn't smiling this morning. Instead, he wore a glower as he chomped on the soggy end of his Havana cigar. “Charging like a flaming fool right into a veritable hornet's nest!"
"He's been acting unusual," Ringo concurred as the morning fog swirled around them.
"Not good at all," Jasper muttered.
They soon crossed the busy Market Street thoroughfare and continued on their path south to Third Street. When they turned on Mission, they spotted a crowd ahead, and it was just as the spying butler, Frederick, had warned. In lieu of a soapbox, Sidney had chosen the steps of the new St. Patrick's Church. Thus situated, it was not surprising that he had already attracted a large crowd, mostly unemployed Irish laborers, judging by the thick brogues that reached Jasper's ears.
Here stood the heart and soul of the Anti-Chinese Workingman's Party, the political phenomenon that, a few years ago, had swept San Francisco like a fever. Due to disorganization, the party itself was starting to break down, but its candidate for mayor, a wild-eyed, firebrand minister, remained Sidney's most formidable opponent in the upcoming election.
This morning, Sidney wore no coat, just a simple black vest and a white shirt, unbuttoned at the collar. Gone too was the silk top hat. In its place, an old derby perched back on his head as he addressed the crowd. "It's simple to point our fingers at the Chinese and claim that they’re our problem. Too simple! It's naïve and self-defeating."
Standing at the back of the crowd, Jasper mused under his breath to Mr. Ringo. "Hard to believe that just last night he was addressing a banquet hall full of stuffy nabobs."
A voice from the crowd rose in challenge. "Oh, yeah? What do you know about hard times? Sitting up there on the hill in your big fancy castle?"
Jasper plucked the cigar from his mouth. "Uh oh, here it comes, Mr. Ringo, here it comes."
Sidney offered the man in the audience a sly smile. "What do I know, you ask? Do you think I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth, sir?"
"We don't know much about that, but we figure, by now, you got enough silver spoons to feed an army!"
Laughter rippled through the crowd.
Sidney grinned. "You're right about that, my friend. I've earned myself enough silver spoons to line the Central Pacific track from here to Utah!"
Another laugh from the group, this one at the heckler's expense. Sidney continued, "But it wasn't always that way. My father worked in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. I followed him when I was thirteen. There were twelve mouths to feed in our family, and the wages the mine owners paid didn't amount to a hill of beans."
"The coal mines?" Jasper echoed in a hushed voice. "Quite an inspired piece of autobiographical fiction, is it not?" He raised an eyebrow at Mr. Ringo.
"And impossible for those muckraking newspapermen to disprove," Ringo added.
Jasper nodded thoughtfully. Mr. Ringo didn't speak often, or say much when he did. This caused many people to underestimate his intelligence. Jasper had never been one of them.
The restive crowd settled as Sidney spoke. "It wasn't until much later that I struck out on my own to make a better life for myself. It was in Virginia City that ..."
Jasper listened as Sidney recounted a rags-to-riches story that bore only the faintest resemblance to the truth. The men in the audience, many of whom had been scowling only moments before, now cocked their heads to one side, listening.
Jasper dropped his cigar and ground it out beneath his boot heel. "It's a gift, Mr. Ringo, the ability to sway a crowd, especially a hostile crowd like this one. If I wasn't seeing it with my own eyes, I wouldn't believe it. A Nob Hill millionaire appealing to the disgruntled masses. Oh, we have a gem on our hands. Even I never realized the full potential of his talent."
Oh, but that was not quite true. Jasper had recognized Sidney as a diamond in the rough from the beginning. Casting himself in the role of lapidary, he had done all the necessary cutting and polishing over the years, and now they were about to harvest the fruits of his labor. Sidney sparkled brighter than even the most brilliant of South African gemstones.
, Jasper thought, his thick lips crooking into a grin.
They'll call me the kingmaker.
He pictured not just San Francisco City Hall, but the United States Senate, perhaps even the presidency. Of course, Jasper would be the real power behind the throne ...
It was uncharacteristic for Mr. Ringo to express an unsolicited observation, but he did so now, rudely shattering Jasper's fantasy. "He's going to make a break."
Jasper's grin faded. His eyes clouded. "What? He's what?"
"He's been acting unusual ever since his brother came to town. He's going to make a break."
Jasper frowned up into Ringo's flat, gray eyes before returning his attention to Sidney. "Yes, ever since—"
And just that suddenly, it was all clear. And irrefutable. Jasper wasn't even sure if Sidney himself knew it yet, but what Mr. Ringo said was true.
"Blackmailers are an unscrupulous lot," Jasper said. "They inevitably keep coming back for more."
Ringo grunted assent and Jasper continued.
"There were bad feelings there, you know. Over a woman. Terrible thing, bad feelings between brothers. Silas was likely to bleed his brother dry and then turn right around and expose him just for the satisfaction."
Jasper's chubby fingers tightened around the silver handle of his cane as he watched Sidney Pierce reel in the disbelievers. It was true that Sidney had been acting unusual of late. He was acting like a man with a conscience.
"Conscience, Mr. Ringo. Pity the man who suffers from it. Imagine being dogged day in and day out until finally you snap. Not a pretty thought, is it?"
Jasper looked up at Ringo. Ringo looked down at Jasper, and Jasper went on. "Reflecting back now, it appears we should have waited to dispose of Silas Pierce. Once out of town, it's doubtful his demise would have made the papers. Sidney would have been none the wiser."
"It's done," Ringo said coldly.
"Ah, well." Jasper donned his customary smile. "Foresight always lacks the wisdom of hindsight."
Ringo said nothing.
Jasper adjusted his cloak as he turned to leave. "Perhaps it's time for Sidney to employ a round-the-clock bodyguard. After all, with so many hooligans about these days, one can never be too careful. You remember, of course, what happened to President Lincoln?"
"Tragic," Ringo grumbled.
"I can think of no one more suitable for the job than you, Mr. Ringo. You must watch out for our Sidney. You must not leave his side for a minute." Jasper slid him a side glance. "You must keep your eyes peeled for trouble. Do you understand?"
"And in the event that trouble should arise," Jasper added as they strolled back up Mission Street, "I have every confidence that you will know how to deal with it."
Despite her anxiety over returning to San Francisco, Gwin enjoyed most of the train trip from Reno to Oakland. The scenery, once they traveled into the Sierra Nevada, was breathtaking, and some of it, especially as they crossed bridges that spanned treacherous canyons, was downright hair-raising. They passed through Sacramento at the end of their first day, and by mid-afternoon the following day, found themselves disembarking on the Oakland side of San Francisco Bay.