Gunslinger: A Six Guns and Prairie Roses Novel, page 2
She smiled as she turned the corner and saw the bustling area just ahead. Jackson Square, the street sign said. From here, she could even see the masts of the merchant ships docked at the wharf. California was, indeed, a land of opportunity. Here, she could finally live an honest life. She didn’t need to be wealthy. Just not poor and hungry any more.
Entering the square from Washington Street, she soon merged in a moving wall of pedestrians. The crowds reminded her of New York, and she moved her valise in front of her to keep from bumping into people. She hadn’t gone far when she spied several hacks across the street, waiting by the curb. As she turned to make her way over to them, someone to her right jostled her while a person in front of her suddenly tripped.
All of her senses went on high alert even as she felt the ever so slight tug on her left side. It was a classic pickpocket routine. The accomplice on the right distracted the victim, the person in front stalled the mark while the hook—the person who actually did the stealing—moved in from the other side. With lightning quickness, Abby’s free arm flashed out and she grabbed a street urchin by his grimy collar.
“I’ll have my reticule back, if you please.”
The boy looked at her with wide eyes and then over her shoulder. She didn’t have to follow his glance to know his partners had already disappeared. She held out her hand. “Now. Before I summon a constable.”
Reluctantly, he pulled the small bag out from under his oversized shirt and gave it back. “I’m good, ye know.” The boy frowned at her. “How did ye know I done it?”
“Never mind that,” she answered. “I’m sure your friends are waiting not far away. Just go.”
He didn’t need to be told twice. Abby watched as he zig-zagged between the pedestrians, bent on getting out of her sight at quickly as possible. She probably should have turned him in, but she didn’t have the heart.
In order to put food on the table and to avoid being thrown out of the tenement, Abby and her brother had worked the same scheme too many times to count.
Luke’s jaw nearly dropped open when he witnessed Miss Abigail Clayton thwart the ragamuffin pickpocket. Such street thievery was practically a profession along the Barbary Coast, and he’d have warned her about it had he gotten a chance to meet her. Apparently, she didn’t need the advice. He’d never seen anyone—other than a gunslinger drawing his gun—move so quickly. That she’d even detected the attempt also spoke volumes. Where had she grown up that she had developed that kind of sixth sense?
The information on the report he’d been able to obtain once he’d found Sayer and heard about his plans for a mail-order bride had been scant. He knew she was from New York City, and he’d known when she left. Background information had been sketchy. He’d assumed Sayer wanted a respectable wife for cover, just like the general store served the purpose of making him seem like a respectable businessman. Luke doubted that the bastard had had a true change of heart. Swindlers, like gamblers, were addicted to the risks of the game. But…had Sayer sought out a woman who could aid-and-abet him with his nefarious plans? Her face was pretty enough to beguile an unsuspecting victim and Miss Clayton had certainly been aware of her surroundings. A young lady raised in genteel circumstances would have walked blithely on, unaware she had been robbed until she got to her destination. Had Sayer planned to add another accomplice?
She glanced around just then, and Luke stepped into a recessed doorway to avoid being seen. He’d followed the hired hack from the train station to the general store, then remained at a discreet distance when she emerged and started walking. Now, his intent was to see where she was going.
A female hand slid up his arm and, if he hadn’t trained himself to have nerves of steel, he would have jumped out of his skin. He turned slowly to see a prostitute with too much paint on her face wink at him. Lord Almighty. How had he not noticed her approach?
“I dunt mind a cozy little space, gov.” She moved closer and looked him up and down. “Although I must say you dunt need to be hidin’ in corners. Yur a fine-lookin’ one, you are.”
“Thank you.” He quickly sidestepped and moved onto the sidewalk. “But I don’t have time for anything right now.”
She fingered the label of his frockcoat. “Are you sure, gov?”
“Yes.” He reached into his pocket for a coin to give to her. At least, he still had his money. Hellfire. As intent as he’d been on following Miss Clayton, he wouldn’t have been surprised if a pickpocket had gotten to him. “Here. Treat yourself to something.”
The woman’s eyes widened as she snatched the silver piece. “Thank you, gov. This here’s my spot if you change your mind. My name is Ruby.” She winked again. “Just like my lips.”
“Er…yes.” From his peripheral vision, he could see Miss Clayton entering another hired hack. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Not waiting for an answer, he strode across the street, climbed up the bench beside a startled driver and tossed him a gold eagle. “Follow that carriage, and don’t lose it.”
“Yes, sir!” The man snapped the reins sharply and lurched into traffic.
It didn’t take long before the first carriage slowed at a boarding house. Luke’s driver looked at him. “Do you want me to stop?”
Luke shook his head. “Keep driving.”
Now that he knew where she was staying, he would plan his own cover.
Her nape prickled as Abby stepped down from the carriage. She’d had the odd feeling that she was being followed, but this neighborhood was much quieter and less trafficked. Only one carriage had passed it was already retreating in the distance. She shook her head to clear it. No doubt she was feeling left over residue from the incident with the pickpockets. And she was rapidly growing aware of how fatigued she really was.
Paying the driver, she let herself through the wrought-iron gate. She stopped to look up at the boarding house. A rectangular, wooden building three stories high, it had fresh, white paint and green shutters. The graveled walkway to the varnished front door was bordered by tiny patches of neatly trimmed lawn on either side. The roof sloped upward and flattened at the top, allowing for a small, square balcony of sorts with wooden rails. Abby suspected that there would be a spectacular view of the water from up there.
Compared to the crowded, dirty tenement in New York, it looked like a castle. And respectable. She was so glad John had steered her in this direction.
Abby hesitated at the door, wondering if she should knock, then decided since it was a boarding house, there was no need. Turning the knob, she stepped through the door into a small foyer sparsely furnished with a small table above which a mirror hung. A counter ran along one wall with wooden pegs for keys and niches for mail on the wall behind it. Directly across was a small sitting room, and Abby moved toward it to peek inside. It was modestly furnished, but with comfortable-looking chairs. Down the short hall, she could hear the sounds of conversation as well as the clinking of tableware, so she assumed that was the public room where meals would be served.
“Can I help you?”
She turned at the sound. A woman with steel gray hair and a no-nonsense expression stood behind the counter. Abby walked over to her. “Mrs. Bartlett?”
“I’d like to rent a room, if there’s one available.”
“You aren’t one of them dance girls, are you?”
She couldn’t help but smile. The only dancing she knew how to do was escaping from a mark. She sobered quickly. Her past was behind her. For good. “I am not a dancer. Mr. John…” she stopped, remembering she’d not gotten the man’s last name. “The shopkeeper at Sayer’s General Store suggested that you might let me a room.”
One gray brow lifted. “Why would he do that?”
“I’m Abigail Clayton, Travis Sayer’s mail-order bride. News of his sudden death didn’t reach me before I left New York.”
“Ah. He was a good tenant while he was here.” Mr
“I don’t plan to return East.”
The woman looked up. “You don’t?”
Abby shook her head. “I was married-by-proxy before I left, so now I’m Travis’s widow. I intend to stay.”
The woman regarded her for a moment. “There’s not much work for a respectable woman in San Francisco. You’d be better off going back.”
“I already told John that I intend to take over operations of the store.”
Mrs. Bartlett’s gaze sharpened. “You intend to run the store?”
“Yes. I think it will be quite exciting to learn the business.”
“I see.” She looked somewhat skeptical, then shrugged. “In that case, my husband and I will be glad to have you stay here.”
“Thank you.” Abby breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time, her life looked like it was turning around.
By the time Abby arrived at the general store early the second morning after her arrival, she felt a lot more confident in her undertaking. She’d spent most of yesterday morning in the law offices of Bermen and Bermen—solicitors recommended by Delia Blake, another widow who was staying at the boarding house—completing the legal paperwork that would make her the owner of her late husband’s store. Or at least, the major owner. There was something in the deed about a silent partner entitled to twenty percent, but no name had been provided. Then she’d spent the afternoon shopping for several practical work dresses. Delia had wanted her to purchase a dinner gown as well, but she saw no reason for such a thing. At least not until she became a successful proprietress.
Determined to win John completely over to her side, she smoothed the skirt of her just-purchased calico, put a smile on her face, and stepped inside the store. And then stopped so abruptly she nearly toppled over her new half-boots.
The black-haired, black-clad man who’d been at the train station was standing by the counter.
John looked none too pleased, but the stranger smiled and gave her a short bow. “Mrs. Sayer?”
She blinked, then remembered that she was not Miss Clayton any longer. “Yes?”
“I’m Luke Cameron. Forgive me for not recognizing you at the train station day before last.”
Abby blinked again. “You were expecting me?”
The stranger inclined his head. “In a way. I knew Travis had contracted for a bride. I was expecting someone…a little older.”
“I am two-and-twenty.” She had always looked younger than her age, an advantage when she would play the child who accidently stalled the person whose pocket her brother would pick. Then she frowned. “You knew Mr. Say— uh, my husband?”
“We’re cousins. I handle an investment syndicate. Travis had indicated that he wanted to expand his business here in San Francisco.”
“I see. Well, I am now the owner of this store, and obviously not ready to think about expanding it.” Abby straightened, although her head barely came to his shoulder. Goodness, the man was tall and broad. She lifted her chin. “I’m not interested in selling, either.”
Luke’s unusual whiskey-colored eyes studied her, before he nodded. “I’m not wanting to buy the store, either.”
“Then that’s settled.” Abby gave a shaky sigh of relief, not quite sure why this stranger rattled her. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to start getting to work.”
“Of course. I’ll be willing to help.”
She started. “Help?”
He smiled again and removed a paper from the inside of his frockcoat. “Your husband signed a contract for the expansion before he was killed, and my investors agreed to the terms, as well.” He handed her the paper. “It seems we’ll be partners, Mrs. Sayer.”
Luke observed Abigail Clayton-Sayer’s reaction to his announcement. If he’d not had a gunslinger’s keen sense for an adversary’s slightest movement or shift in gaze, he might not have noticed the dilation that made her blue eyes suddenly look violet, nor the quick, short intake of breath which made her breasts heave under the high-necked, proper cotton dress she wore. Her facial expression was as impassive as a poker player and coupled with what he’d witnessed on the street two days before, he wondered again what her background was…and whether she was involved in Sayer’s scams.
Beautiful women often turned out to be Jezebels. He should know.
And then there was the fact that she’d married-by-proxy before she came West. Most mail-order brides waited until they’d at least seen their future husbands before tying the knot. Had she known Sayer before? Had she known about his schemes and decided she wanted to make sure she got half of what he’d swindled?
That she planned to stay and run the store meant she was ambitious. Not that Luke would fault her for that, but how far did her ambition extend? Would she be willing to collude with Sayer’s secret accomplice?
Time would tell.
But Hell’s blazes! Did Abigail Clayton-Sayer have to be so damn alluring? Her face was devoid of paint, nor did cloyingly sweet perfume cling to her. He caught only the fresh scent of soap and perhaps a bit of rosewater wafting from her hair. Even in the prim, high-collared calico she wore, he could detect delicate curves in all the right places. Her golden hair was pulled back in a proper chignon, although a few tendrils had escaped, no doubt from the wind on her way over. His fingers itched to undo the pins and spread that golden halo with his hands as her sapphire eyes turned indigo with desire…
Luke gave himself an inward shake and refocused.
Right now, he had one foot in the door with his forged documents, thanks to a Pinkerton operative in San Francisco. He doubted Sayer ever had plans to expand. The store was probably just a cover to launder money. However, Luke’s original plan of exposing the man’s fraudulence to force him to sell the store and turn over the profits—if he didn’t want to get the authorities involved—was no longer doable. Now he had to find the accomplice, which meant he needed to have a connection to the store.
“I’m sure you’ll find the papers in order.” Pinkerton operatives were nothing if not efficient.
She still looked a bit dazed as she glanced down at the paper. “Perhaps your investors might want to reconsider, given the change in circumstances.”
“I suspect not.” Since his grandmother and her friends hadn’t been the only ones swindled, he’d managed to persuade the local Pinkerton office to grant him a bit of seed money to make the project look authentic. “San Francisco has increased its population by 200% since the Gold Rush began and it’s continuing to grow. That makes this town a lucrative investment.”
“So why not just build another store and offer competition?”
The astuteness of her thinking shouldn’t have surprised him given the pick-pocket scenario he’d witnessed. The question was logical, as well. “There are a number of general stores already providing competition. What makes this one stand out,” he added before she could ask the next logical question, “is its location. There is still room for expansion. San Francisco is becoming a bit crowded anywhere near the bay.”
She glanced around. “It seems to me that we have an excellent inventory. Why would adding to it be necessary?”
“It will be a different kind of inventory. More Eastern businessmen are relocating here, and they will want some refinements. My investors think to fill a need for the more luxurious items, like imported tea. Exotic spices too…cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger…and clothing dyes, like red and indigo, as well as fine silks.”
A corner of her mouth lifted along with a questioning arch of a brow. “Those items are more enticing to women than men.”
“You are quite right, Mrs. Sayer.” Luke paused. “A second part of the investment plan involves women.”
The other brow went up. “How?”
“Wives accompany their husbands. They will want th
“That’s for our extra stock,” John interrupted.
“The extra stock can be stored in the basement, can’t it?” Luke asked. “That was another thing that made this building a good choice. It has a basement.”
“But not fit for much,” John countered. “Dirt floor and all.”
“I can take a look at it.”
“Never mind,” John said quickly. “I suppose I can probably get pallets to keep things dry if I need to. But I don’t see why we need more space for tea and spices.”
Luke turned back to Abby. “We can refit the storage area into a sitting room of sorts with comfortable furniture for these women to meet during the day to exchange pleasantries and sample the new products—”
“A women’s club?” she asked, her tone skeptical.
“In a way, but I suspect women who are willing to travel West—such as yourself—are also somewhat independent-minded. My investors want local involvement to ensure interest in the products continue.” He lifted one shoulder, then let it drop. “I’ll give them the opportunity to be a part of the expansion by using their household funds to invest independently of their husbands. For the first time, perhaps, they’ll be able to make their own money. It will be small at first, but as the store profits grow, so will what they’ve contributed. I think that will appeal to many women.”
Abigail considered. “I suppose it might.”
Luke nodded. He also hoped it would appeal to the accomplice. When word got around that a women’s club was organizing at Sayer’s General Store to do investing, the bait would be too difficult to resist. He hoped.
“Until I have a chance to look over the accounts and see how much money is actually being made—”