Authors: Delynn Royer
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Romantic Comedy, #Western, #Historical Romance, #Westerns
Smythe stared at Cole blankly.
Cole continued, "It seems that Miss Pierce suffers from the effects of an overactive imagination, if you get my meaning. Her family has arranged for her to be treated at one of the finest sanitariums on the West Coast, and it's my job to see that she gets there safely."
"Oh, I see." Smythe's face had turned the color of a blooming tea rose. He was obviously embarrassed that he'd been taken in by a lunatic.
"Come, Miss Pierce. We wouldn't want to miss our train, would we?"
Gwin was disgusted as Shepherd guided her back through the crowd to the bar where Arthur was still stuffing his mouth. If her brother wasn't such a glutton, he could have made a break for it while he had the chance.
Shepherd stopped suddenly and pulled her around to face him. Gwin squinted, uncomfortable at being confronted once again by that face. Cole Shepherd didn't merely resemble Lancelot, he
Lancelot, and Gwin, who could be accused of being whimsical only in her dreams, had a hunch. She had a hunch that she hadn't created Lancelot out of thin air after all. She had met him somewhere before, and she knew she wouldn't be able to rest until she had figured out where.
His tone was smug. "I expected better from you, Miss Pierce. It looks like I'm not going to be able to trust you."
Gwin was growing annoyed with his self-satisfied attitude.
. Well, he hadn't seen anything yet. It was a long way from Topeka to San Francisco and she had no intention of returning to California. Sooner or later, she would get the best of this particular Pinkerton man.
Gwin replied in a cool tone. "We have four more days to California, Shepherd. I suggest that you hold onto your hat."
At least they had managed to board the train without making a scene. Cole figured he should be grateful for even small favors when it came to the lovely but troublesome Miss Pierce.
Arthur was clearly more excited than his older sister over the prospect of long-distance travel by rail. He bounced up and down on the plushly upholstered seat, changing subjects faster than hell could scorch a feather. "Gee whillikins! We're riding in a real Pullman car! Do you think they serve dinners on this train? I'll have steak if they do! Hey, Mr. Shepherd, can we open the window? Heeeeyyyy!" His eyes rounded ominously. "Do you think we'll have a wreck?"
His delighted grin made it clear that he couldn't fathom anything more exciting than an honest to goodness train wreck, the kind that made
"No, Arthur, I do not think we'll have a wreck," Cole said.
As the boy turned to concentrate his short attention span on prying open his window, Cole's gaze was drawn back to Miss Pierce. Her wrists rested on the small table that separated the facing seats of their compartment. Those dainty, nimble fingers were busy squaring, cutting, and riffle-shuffling a deck of playing cards.
He caught a flash of something that snagged his attention and reached out to still her hands. "What's that?"
She transferred the deck to her right hand and splayed the fingers of her left, displaying an almost imperceptible webbing of skin between her smallest finger and ring finger. Cole had never seen anything like it.
"What's the matter, Shepherd? Do imperfections bother you?"
He tore his eyes from the odd disfigurement and looked up to meet her defensive gaze. "No, of course not."
She slipped her wrist from Cole's grasp and returned to shuffling her cards. "I was born with it."
Cole glanced at Arthur, who had finally succeeded in opening his window and was back to fidgeting in his seat. Arthur's hands, both displayed clearly as he drummed his fingers on the tabletop, were normal. He had not inherited the same trait as his sister. Cole made a mental note to add this peculiar physical characteristic to Miss Pierce's file when he returned to Chicago.
She hummed to herself, clearly unconcerned with Cole's scrutiny as she continued to manipulate the deck with astonishing finesse. She shuffled, squared the deck, and drew the ace of spades from the top. Replacing it, she picked up the deck in her left hand and rapidly dealt from the top: a six, a jack, a ten and ... the ace of spades.
"You actually carry a deck with you?" Cole asked.
She replaced the ace of spades again face down on top. "Always."
Arthur piped up brightly. "That's her lucky deck."
"That's her marked deck, you mean."
She looked at Cole askance as she dealt rapidly once again: jack, six, jack, ace of spades. "Are you insinuating that I would cheat?"
"Yes, Miss Pierce."
She scooped up the dealt cards and replaced them in the deck. She laid the ace of spades face down on top, set the deck on the table, and squared it up neatly with both hands. "Normally, I would take offense, but seeing as how you're cursed with an unusually suspicious nature, I'll overlook it."
The afternoon sun spilled through open venetian blinds, casting flickering bars of light across her exquisite features as the train picked up speed. She certainly appeared harmless enough. She was conservatively dressed, a white jacket blouse tucked into the tiny waist of a brown, no-nonsense skirt. Her only concession to fashion, a small porkpie hat, nested atop ginger red hair pulled back into a loosely braided coil at the nape of her neck. Seated as closely as he was to her now, Cole kept catching subtle whiffs of feminine perfume. Lilac, he guessed.
Ever since foiling her escape yesterday, Cole had been wrestling with the elusive feeling that he had met her somewhere before, but that had to be his imagination. He would never forget that face.
"So, what's your game, Shepherd? Poker? Three-card monte?"
Cole glanced down just in time to see her cut the deck three times, square up, then flip over the top card. Ace of spades. Of course.
"I don't have a game, Miss Pierce."
Those dazzling blue eyes turned on Cole full force. "Everyone has a game."
Cole folded the Topeka newspaper on his lap, closed his eyes, and rested his head back against the soft bolster seat. "I don't play games unless the odds are in my favor."
"Or unless an assignment demands it of you. Am I right?"
She stage-whispered to her brother. "In other words, he's a skinflint."
Cole let the taunt pass. Having picked up its best speed by now, the train traveled over straight, flat track. The constancy of motion and the steady clicking of the wheels began to seduce him into sleep.
"We don’t have to play for money, Shepherd."
He cracked one eye open. She wore a cunning smile.
Oh, that lovely mouth
. It was just too darned bad she was a crook, too darned bad that those kissable lips were so adept at lying. "What would you have us wager?"
"Oh, I don't know." She tapped a corner of the deck on the table, pretending to think, then she batted her eyelashes at him. "How about, if you draw the winning card, my brother and I promise to behave ourselves for the rest of the trip?"
"And if you draw the winning card?"
"We get off at the next stop."
"Not likely, Miss Pierce."
She sniffed and turned away. "You know, over the span of four long days, you're liable to 'Miss Pierce' me to death."
Cole straightened up in his seat with a sigh. It was clear she wasn't about to let him have any peace. "Would you prefer I call you Gwendolyn?"
"Why would you do that?" Arthur asked. "That's not her name."
"Really?" Cole was surprised. "That's the name in your file at the Agency."
She arched a brow. "Your precious file is wrong."
"Her name is Guinevere," Arthur said.
"Guinevere?" Cole looked back at her with interest. "Like in—"
"Yes," she said curtly.
Arthur wasn't daunted by his sister's annoyance. On the contrary, he appeared delighted. "She was named after Queen Guinevere of Camelot."
Guinevere sank down in her seat and scowled out the window. Cole winked at her brother. "Then you must be none other than King Arthur himself."
The boy beamed. "You bet!" He scooted to the edge of his seat and plunged one hand deep into the side pocket of his overalls. "And this," he announced, proudly displaying a ratty-looking slingshot, "is Excalibur."
"I thought Excalibur was a sword."
"You thought wrong, Mr. Shepherd."
Cole couldn't help but like this kid. He was bright, ingenuous, and had a good sense of humor. "Ah, I see. I'm honored to be in such royal company."
Guinevere turned back abruptly. "Could we just dispense with all this nonsense and get down to business?"
"We don't have any business to get down to, Guinevere," Cole said.
"No one calls me that. My name is Gwin. Maybe our mother believed in fairy tales, but I certainly don't."
Cole appraised her. "No? You mean, you don't believe in 'once upon a time'?"
"Not princesses in white towers, not knights in shining armor?"
"Certainly not," she said.
"Not even happy endings?"
"Especially not those."
"As you say, your ladyship."
"My brother has a big mouth. I suppose now we'll have to put up with your feeble attempts at humor all the way to San Francisco." She threw Cole a shrewd look. "That is, if we make it that far."
"Oh, we'll make it that far," Cole assured her.
She didn't answer him. Cole looked over in time to catch Arthur's sudden change in demeanor. He was biting his lip and looking expectantly at his sister, all traces of good humor vanished.
"What's the matter?" Cole asked.
The boy didn't look away from Gwin, who pointedly ignored him. "Gwinnie? Why don't you tell him?"
She shook her head, her gaze fixed on the featureless prairie that passed outside the window. "He wouldn't believe us anyway, Arthur, so just save your breath."
Arthur turned back to Cole. "You're not such a bad guy, are you, Mr. Shepherd?"
"I suppose that depends on who you talk to about it."
The kid forced a weak smile, but it dissolved into another worried frown. "If you take us back to San Francisco, they're going to try to kill us, just like they did the others."
"What do you mean, 'they'?"
Gwin reached across the table to grasp her brother's wrist. "No."
The boy gave her a pleading look before continuing. "I mean, the ones who killed Silas and the others."
"I thought there was just one man," Cole said.
Gwin released her brother and sat back. "There
just one man."
"And you both saw him."
"No. Arthur saw him. I didn't get a good look at his face, but I'd sure recognize that voice again if I heard it."
"Well, together, you can both still identify him. You can testify at his trial, and that'll be the end of it. He won't be able to hurt you or anyone else again."
Gwin shook her head. "It's not that simple. The man they arrested is not the same man who killed Silas."
Arthur nodded soberly to confirm his sister's words.
"And did you tell this to the authorities?" Cole asked.
Indignant anger sparked in Gwin's eyes. "Of course we told them! That's when the trouble started."
"Wait a minute. Back up. What trouble?"
Arthur pushed up in his seat. "I told them, Mr. Shepherd. I told them that the fella they had in jail wasn't the one who shot them. I saw the man who shot them, and he was a giant. Big as Goliath himself. Swear to God. I saw that giant's face."
Cole eyed Arthur dubiously. A giant? Wasn't Arthur too old to be making up stories about giants? Cole looked back at Gwin. "I don't understand."
, Pinkerton man. They told him to look harder and to think about it. They said maybe he would change his mind, and when he didn't, they said, 'Look, kid, it was dark that night. How can you be sure of anything you saw?' And then, when he still wouldn't change his mind, this one detective, he took me aside and said to me, real quiet so nobody else could hear, 'You better talk to your little brother, miss, cause things might start to go hard on the two of you if your story doesn't begin to make more sense. '"
"Are you saying they were trying to force him to make a false identification?"
Gwin folded her arms neatly. "Aren't you smart? No wonder you work for a famous detective agency."
Cole ignored the sarcasm. "What you're telling me doesn't make any sense."
"It didn't make much sense to us either, but we got the message loud and clear. Either we identified Cortez as the killer or we would be considered suspects ourselves."
"That's not so unusual. I'm not saying that you had anything to do with it, mind you, I'm just saying that as the only two survivors, it's normal procedure for them to include you in their list of suspects."
She rolled her eyes. "That makes about as much sense as two turkeys strutting up to the chopping block on Thanksgiving Day. Who do you think reported the murders in the first place?"
Arthur interjected eagerly. "It was after I told them that they had the wrong man that they tried to kill us!"
Cole held up one hand. "Who is this 'they' you're referring to?"
"We don’t' know," Gwin replied. "Someone took a potshot at us outside our hotel. Two nights later, someone tried to break into our room. That was enough for me. If we waited much longer, we'd end up either in jail or dead."
Cole studied Gwin's face. There was no indication that she was lying; then again, lying was her specialty, wasn't it?
Doubtful, he looked away only to catch the eye of an attractive blonde in the next compartment. She smiled at him, and he had the passing thought that she looked like Cynthia.
Cole had always prided himself on his ability to size people up, but he had soon discovered, fresh out of college and newly inducted into the New York City Police Department, that when it came to women, he had a lot to learn.
He had met Cynthia and had soon, like a fool, grown incapable of thinking with anything but that which riseth below his belt. For six months, he'd fancied himself in love with her. He had been so bowled over by that pretty, lying face, he had managed to overlook the small fact that she was married. Hell, she wasn't just married, she was married to a Tammany Hall-backed city councilman. In allowing himself to become involved with Cynthia, Cole had taken a chance on destroying his career before it could get started. And for what?