- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
- All the Possibilities
- Black Rose
- The Great Train Robbery
- Blue Dahlia
- Carnal Innocence
- Dance Upon the Air
- High Noon
- Sacred Sins
- Face the Fire
- Holding the Dream
- A Man for Amanda
"I'm feeling lots better, Miss Conway." Alice took the tin cup and sipped gingerly.
"Yes. She ran away and ended up at the Silver Star."
Anne's lips tightened as she fought back words that even her husband had never heard her utter. "I'd dearly love that tea now."
"Oh, yes." Sarah hurried back to the stove. "I'm sorry. Please sit down." She set out the napkins she'd made out of blue checked gingham. "I hope you'll enjoy this honey cake. It's a recipe from the cook of a very dear friend of mine in Philadelphia." As she offered the plate, Philadelphia and everyone in it seemed years away.
"Thank you, dear." Anne waited for Sarah to sit down, then said, "Alice is sleeping now. I wasn't sure you'd done the right thing by taking her in here. Truth is, I drove out this morning because I was concerned." "I had to take her in."
"No, you didn't." When Sarah bristled, Anne laid a hand on hers. "But you did what was right, and I'm proud of you. That girl needs help." With a sigh, she sat back and looked at her own daughter. Pretty Liza, she thought, always so bright and curious. And safe, she reflected, adding a quick prayer of thanksgiving. Her children had always had a full plate and a solid roof over their heads-and a father who loved them. She made up her mind to thank her husband very soon.
"Alice Johnson has had nothing but hard times." Anne took a sip of tea. Her mind was made up. She had only to convince her husband. At that thought her lips curved a little. It was never hard to convince a man whose heart was soft and open. The other ladies in town would be a bit more difficult, but she'd bring them around. The challenge of it made her smile widen and the light of battle glint in her eyes. "What that girl needs is some proper work and a real home. When she's on her feet again, I think she should come work at the store."
"Oh, Mrs. Cody."
Anne brushed Sarah's stunned gratitude aside.
"Once Liza's married to Will I'm going to need new help. She can take Liza's room in the house, as well...as part of her wage."
Sarah fumbled for words, then gave up and simply leaned over to wrap her arms around Anne, "It's kind of you," she managed. "So kind. I've spoken with Alice about just that, but she pointed out that the women in town wouldn't accept her after she'd worked at the Silver Star."
"You don't know Ma." Pride shimmered in Liza's voice. "She'll bring the ladies around, every one.
Won't you, Ma?"
Anne patted her hah-. "You can put money on it."
Satisfied, she broke off a corner of the honey cake. "Sarah, now that we've got that settled, I feel I have to talk to you about the...visit you paid to the Silver Star yesterday."
"Visit?" Though she knew it was hopeless, Sarah covered the bruise under her eyes with her fingers. "You know, when you tangled with Carlotta," Liza put in. "Everyone in town's talking about how you wrestled with her and even punched Jake Redman. I wish I'd seen it." She caught her mother's eye and grimaced. "Well, I do."
"Oh, Lord." This time Sarah covered her entire face. "Everyone?"
"Mrs. Miller was standing just outside when the sheriff went in." Liza took a healthy bite of cake. "You know how she loves to carry tales."
When Sarah just groaned, Anne shook her head at Liza. "Honey, you eat some more of that cake and keep your mouth busy. Now, Sarah." Anne pried Sarah's hands away from her face. "I have to say I was a mite surprised to hear that you'd gone in that place and had a hair-pulling match with that woman.
Truth is, a nice young girl like you shouldn't even know about places and people like that."
"Can't live in Lone Bluff two days and not know about Carlotta," Liza said past a mouthful of cake.
"Liza." Anne held up a single finger. "Chew. Seeing as you're without kin of your own, Sarah, I figured I'd come on out and speak to you about it." She took another sip of tea while Sarah waited to be lectured. "Well, blast it, now that I've seen that girl up there, I wished I'd taken a good yank at Carlotta, myself." "Ma!" Delighted, Liza slapped both hands to her mouth. "You wouldn't."
"No." Anne flushed a little and shifted in her chair. "But I'd like to. Now, I'm not saying I want to hear about you going back there, Sarah."
"No." Sarah managed a rueful smile. "I think I've finished any business I might have at the Silver Star." "Popped you a good one, did she?" Anne commented studying Sarah's eye.
"Yes." Sarah grinned irrepressibly. "But I gave her a bloody nose. It's quite possible that I broke it." "Really. Oh, I do wish I'd seen that." Ready to be impressed, Liza leaned forward, only to straighten again at a look from Anne. "Well, it's not as if I'd go inside myself."
"Not if you want to keep the hide on your bottom," Anne said calmly. She smoothed her hair, took another sip of tea, then gave up. "Well, darn it, are you going to tell us what it looks like in there or not?" With a laugh, Sarah propped her elbows on the table and told them.
Scheming came naturally to Carlotta. As she lay in the wide feather bed, she ran through all the wrongs that had been done to her and her plans for making them right. The light was dim, with only two thin cracks appearing past the sides of the drawn shades. It was a large room by the Silver Star's standards. She'd had the walls between two smaller rooms removed to fashion her own private quarters, sacrificing the money one extra girl would have made her for comfort.
For Carlotta, money and comfort were one and the same. She wanted plenty of both.
Though it was barely nine, she poured a glass of whiskey from the bottle that was always at her bedside. The hot, powerful taste filled the craving she awoke with every morning. Sipping and thinking, she cast her eyes around the room.
The walls were papered in a somewhat virulent red-and-silver stripe she found rich and elegant. Thick red drapes, too heavy for the blistering Arizona summers, hung at the windows. They made her think, smugly, of queens and palaces. The carpet echoed the color and was badly in need of cleaning. She rarely noticed the dirt.
On the mirrored vanity, which was decorated with painted cherubs, was a silver brush set with an elaborate C worked into the design. It was the only monogram she used. Carlotta had no last name, at least none she cared to remember.
Her mother had always had a man in her bed. Carlotta had gone to sleep most nights on a straw pallet in the corner, her lullaby the grunts and groans of sex.
It had made her sick, the way men had pounded themselves into her mother. But that had been nothing compared to the disgust she had felt for her mother's weeping when the men were gone.
Crying and sniveling and begging God's forgiveness, Carlotta thought. Her mother had been the whore of that frigid little town in the Carolina mountains, but she hadn't had the guts to make it work for her.
Always claimed she was doing it to feed her little girl, Carlotta remembered with a sneer. She poured more whiskey into the glass. If that had been so, why had her little girl gone hungry so many nights? In the dim light, Carlotta studied the deep amber liquid. Because Ma was just as fond of whiskey as I am, she decided. She drank, and savored the taste.
The difference between you and me, Ma, she thought to herself, is that I ain't ashamed-not of the whiskey, not of the men. And I made something of myself.
Did you cry when I left? Carlotta laughed as she thought back to the night she'd left the smelly, windowless shack for the last time. She'd been fifteen and she'd saved nearly thirty dollars she'd made selling herself to trappers. Men paid more for youth. Carlotta had learned quickly. Her mother had never known her daughter was her stiffest competition.
She despised them all. Every man who'd pushed himself into her. She took their money, arched her hips and loathed them. Hate made a potent catalyst for passion.
Her customers went away satisfied, and she saved every coin.
One night she'd packed her meager belongings, stolen another twenty dollars from the can her mother kept hidden in the rafters and headed west.
She'd worked saloons in the early years, enjoying the fancy clothes and bottles of paint. Her affair with whiskey had blossomed and helped her smile and seduce hungry-eyed cowboys and rough-handed drifters.
She'd saved, keeping her mouth firmly shut about the bonuses she wheedled from men.
When she'd turned eighteen she had had enough to open her own place. A far cry from the Silver Star, Carlotta remembered. Her first brothel had been hardly more than a shack in a stinking cattle town in-east Texas. But she'd made certain her girls were as young and pretty as she could get.
She'd had a brief affair with a gambler who'd sported brocade vests and string ties. He'd filled her head with talk of crystal chandeliers and red carpets. When she'd moved on, she'd taken his pearl stickpin, two hundred in cash and her own profits.
Then she'd opened the Silver Star.
One day she'd move on again, on to California. But she intended to do it in style. She'd have those crystal chandeliers, she vowed. And a white porcelain tub with gold handles. Gold.
Carlotta felt a pleasure flow through her, a pleasure as fluid as the whiskey. It was gold she needed to bring her dream to full life. And gold she intended to have. The man beside her was the tool she would use to gain it.
Jim Carlson. Carlotta looked down at his face. It was rough with several days' growth of beard and slack from sleep, sex and whiskey. She knew him for a fool, hot-tempered, small-minded and easily manipulated. Still, he was better-looking than many she had taken into her bed. His body was tough and lean, but she preferred young, limber bodies. Like Jake's. Scowling, Carlotta took another drink. She'd broken her most important rule with Jake Redman. She'd let herself want him, really want him, in a way she'd never desired another man. Her body had responded to his so that for the first time in her life she hadn't feigned the ecstasy men wanted from a whore. She'd felt it. Now she craved it, as she craved whiskey, and gold, and power.
With Jake, desire was a hot, tight fist in her gut. Not just because he had a style in bed most men who came to her didn't feel obliged to employ. Because Jake Redman held something of himself back, something she sensed was powerful and exciting. Something she wanted for herself. And had been on her way to getting, she thought, before that pasty-faced bitch had come to town.
She had a lot to pay Miss Sarah Conway back for. Thoughtful, Carlotta touched a hand to her bruised cheek. A whole lot. Pay her back she would, and in doing so she would take Jake and the gold.
Jim Carlson, though he was unaware of it, was going to help her on all counts.
Setting the empty glass aside, Carlotta picked up a hand mirror. The bruises annoyed her, but they would fade. The faint lines fanning out from her eyes and bracketing her mouth would not. They would only deepen. She cursed and pushed the mirror aside. With a pleased smile, she ran both hands down her body. It was long, smooth-skinned and curvaceous.
It was her body men wanted and her body she had used, and would continue to use, to get what life had cheated her of.
She shifted, took Jim in her hand and brought him breathlessly awake.
"God Almighty, Carlotta," Groaning, he tried to roll over and into her.
"In a hurry, Jim?" She evaded him expertly, all the while using her skill to keep him aroused.
"Thought you'd burned the life out of me last night." He shuddered. "Glad to find out it ain't so." "I want to talk to you, Jim."
"Talk." He filled his hands with her breasts.
"Honey, I got better ways to spend my money than talk."
She let him suck and nuzzle, calculating how far she could let him go and keep him in line. Rooting about like a puppy, she thought in disgust while she stroked his hair.
"Your money ran out at dawn, sweetheart."
"I got more." He bit her, hard. Because she knew he expected it, she gave a soft moan of pleasure. "House rules, Jim. Money first."
He swore at her and considered taking his pleasure as he chose. But if he forced her and managed to avoid getting tossed out by Eli, the doors of the Silver Star would be barred to him. He had money, he thought. And a need that was rock-hard.
When he started to shift, Carlotta trailed a finger down his arm. "Talk, Jim, and I'll..." With a long sigh, she arched back so that he could look his fill.
"I'll give you the rest for free."
Sweat beaded on his upper lip as he studied her.
"You don't do nothing for free."
Deliberately she ran a hand over her breast and down her rib cage and stroked the soft swell of her belly. "Talk. We're going to talk first." Her lips curved as she watched him swallow. "About gold." When he stiffened, her smile only widened. "Don't worry, Jim. I haven't told anyone, have I? I've never said a word about how you and Donley killed old Matt Conway."
"I was drunk when I told you about that." He wiped a hand over the back of his mouth as fear and desire twined inside him. "A man says all kinds of things when he's drunk."
That made her laugh. She pillowed her head on her folded arms "Nobody knows that better than a whore or a wife, honey. Relax. Who was the one who told you old Matt had finally hit? Who was the one who told you his daughter was coming and you had to move fast? Don't try dealing from the bottom with me, sweetheart. It's business, remember. Yours and mine."
After pushing himself up in bed, he reached bad-temperedly for the whiskey bottle. "I told you once Sam got things worked out you'd get your share." "And what does Sam have to work out?" She let him take a swallow, two. It never hurt to loosen a man's tongue, but there were some who went from relaxed to mean with whiskey. With Jim the line was all too easily crossed. She took the bottle back.
"We've already been through this," he muttered. He no longer felt like having sex, and he sure as hell didn't want to talk.
"If Sam had some idea about getting that Conway bitch to the altar to get his hands on the deed, he's had time enough. Everybody in town knows she doesn't have her eye on your brother, but on Jake Redman." "How about you?" He tapped a finger, none too gently, against her bruised cheekbone. "Who do you have those blue eyes on?"
"The main chance, sweetheart. Always the main chance." She ran her tongue over her lips, grimly pleased with the way Jim's eyes followed the movement. The surest way to lead a man, she knew, was from a point just below his gunbelt. She rose, knowing the shuttered light would be flattering to her skin. Slowly she ran her hands up her body, letting them linger on her breasts.
"You know, Jim," she began, slipping into a thin red negligee that was as transparent as glass, "I've always been drawn to men who take risks, who know what they want and take it." She left the negligee open as she walked back toward the bed. "That night you came in and told me how you and Donley had dragged Matt up to the mine and how you'd killed him because he wouldn't hand over the deed. You told me just how you'd killed him, how you'd hurt him first. Remember that night, Jim? You and me sure had ourselves a good time after we came upstairs."
He wet his lips. Her nipples were dark and just out of reach. "I remember."
"It was exciting. Knowing you'd just come from killing a man. Killing him to get what you wanted. I knew I was with a real man." The negligee fell carelessly off one shoulder. "Trouble is, nothing's happened since. I keep waiting."
"I told you. Sam's going-"
"The hell with Sam." She battled back her temper to smile at him. "He's too slow, too careful. A real man takes action. If he wants the Conway girl, why doesn't he just take her? Or you could take her for him." She moved closer, letting the idea take root. "She's all that's in the way, Jim. You deal with her-and I ain't talking-about firing one of her sheds." The quick wariness in his eyes pleased her. "Hurt her, Jim. She'll hand over the deed quick enough. Then kill her." She murmured the words like a love song.
"When she's dead, you come to me. We can do anything you want." She stood beside the bed, glorious and gleaming. "Anything. And it won't cost you a cent."
She didn't cry out when his hand clamped over her wrist. Their faces were close, each of them aroused in different ways, for different reasons.
"You'll take care of her?"
"Yes, damn you. Come here."
Carlotta smiled bitterly at the ceiling while Jim collapsed on top of her.
From her window an hour later, Carlotta watched as Jake rode into town. Her hands clenched into fists- from anger, yes, but also from a stab of desire. Soon, she thought, very soon, he'd come back to her.
She turned as Jim pulled up his pants. She was smiling. "I think it's a real good time for you to pay Sarah Conway a visit."
- The Loners
- The Saints
- Tome of the Undergates
- Black Halo
- The Skybound Sea
- If You Stay
- If You Leave
- Until We Burn
- Before We Fall
- Every Last Kiss
- Suspiciously Obedient
- Random Acts of Crazy
- Random Acts of Trust
- Her First Billionaire
- Her Second Billionaire
- Her Two Billionaires
- Her Two Billionaires and a Baby
- His Majesty's Dragon
- Throne of Jade
- Black Powder War
- Victory of Eagles
- Tongues of Serpents
- Empire of Ivory
- Crucible of Gold