Improper Gentlemen, page 1
DIANE WHITESIDE MAGGIE ROBINSON MIA MARLOWE
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Table of Contents
To Match a Thief
A Knack for Trouble
MY FAIR HIGHLANDER,
Wolf Laurel, Colorado,
High Rockies, September 1875
Silver and black spun through the man’s fingers in deadly pin wheels of steel under the lead-grey skies.
Charlotte Moreland froze in front of the Silver King Hotel, unable to take another step even though the young man was more than a dozen paces away.
Three years of playing poker in the West’s worst gambling dens had taught her much about the narrow margin between great shootists and the dead. She had no desire to join the latter near an establishment called Hair Trigger Palace.
Handsome and harsh as a Renaissance angel, he was utterly absorbed in weaving patterns of light as he spun his revolvers. His black broadcloth frockcoat, black trousers, and black boots were as finely made as if they too bore homage to the death-dealing implements he worshipped.
Her fellow stagecoach passengers streamed into the closest saloon to warm themselves with beer or whiskey. One headed swiftly into the hotel to claim his clean lodging, more priceless than a good meal in this hastily built town. A few pedestrians glanced at the effortless display of gun tricks, then walked swiftly past.
He flipped the heavy guns between his hands and they smacked into his palms like a warrior’s salute. He immediately tossed them high and spun them back into the holsters at his hips.
Last spring in Denver, she’d seen a shootist testing his pistols. He’d shot a can of peaches until it had exploded its innards across a wall, just like a person would. She’d been wretchedly sick in her hotel room afterward.
This man slapped the leather holsters and, an instant later on a ragged beat, death looked out of the guns’ barrels.
His expression hardened to that of an angry fallen angel leading armies of destruction. He shoved his guns back into place, clearly ready to teach them another lesson.
Charlotte gave a little squeak and trotted onto the boardwalk in front of the hotel. No matter how flimsy its roof and planks were, it still offered more protection than the open street. Men, equipped with guns and a temper, were dangerous to both themselves and everyone nearby.
The shootist whirled in surprise and his gaze drilled into her.
Heaven help her, it was the same pistolero she’d seen in Denver—Justin Talbot, the fastest gun in Colorado.
Recognition flashed across his face. But not greed, thank God. Perhaps he hadn’t recognized her photo, flaunted by those skulking Pinkerton’s men throughout the mining towns.
Why had she dreamed about him for so many months?
He bowed to her with a flourish and she froze. Her heart drummed in her throat, too fast to let her breathe or think.
How should she acknowledge him—formally, with a bow or a curtsy? Heartily, with a wave inviting affection or perhaps intimacy? Or coldly, with an averted shoulder and gaze, as befitted such an experienced death-dealer, no matter what skills living in this town required?
He frowned and anguish slipped into his eyes. A man whistled from behind him.
Talbot’s mouth tightened and he bowed to her again, far more coldly. She gave him the barest of nods in return, all her drumming pulse would support.
He disappeared into the Hair Trigger Palace an instant later, his expression still harsher than an ice-etched granite mountain.
Truly, she should not feel bereft, as if she’d lost a potential friend.
She slapped dust off her carpetbag and silently castigated herself for standing outside on the hotel porch like a wilted daisy. In order to dodge any Pinkerton’s men on the lookout for her, she’d given herself very little time to claim her hotel room after arriving in town. She’d be a damn fool to lose her chance of playing in the tournament by not making it out of her hotel room and down to the Crystal Saloon.
The Silver King’s brightly lit lobby was even more crowded than she’d expected. Smooth-talking gamblers jostled elbows with rough miners under stuffed and mounted antelope. Buckskin-clad mountain men and sober businessmen shouted at clerks, who hovered over an immense mahogany bar.
A little boy weaved his way through the room, pulling his mittens on with his teeth. His respectably dressed mother followed him, all the while admonishing him not to go outside until both hands were covered. The second mitten dropped out of his grasp just before he reached Charlotte, but he kept on running for the door.
Charlotte snatched up the bright red lump of red wool an instant before he escaped into the fresh air, and offered it to his mother. “Ma’am? I believe this may be his.”
The woman’s patient, weary face brightened when she saw the worn mitten. Then her gaze traveled upward to catalogue the newcomer’s attire, especially her diamond brooch, the telltale mark of a professional gambler.
She gasped in audible horror and yanked her child’s glove out of Charlotte’s unresisting grip.
“Ace Moreland,” she hissed.
“Ma’am.” Charlotte bowed formally, the same way she would have greeted an ancestral enemy at a ball overlooking Boston Harbor. The only use for that nickname was as a disguise.
Her stomach tightened in sickened resignation, but not surprise. She should have known better than to stay at a respectable hotel. But Wolf Laurel was such a young settlement that females traveling alone had very few options.
The woman grabbed her son by the ear and hauled the protesting child away, without a backward glance.
Charlotte laughed silently, mirthlessly, at herself. She should have learned not to approach a respectable woman by now, although not being allowed to aid a child hurt worse than any previous slight. There was nothing left to do but keep moving on.
She headed for the front desk and the hotel manager, who should treat her with the courtesy due a guest. She needed to earn a bigger fortune soon, if she wanted women to be polite to her face.
The men there were, as ever, friendlier than the so-called gentler sex, but they didn’t push the bounds of propriety. Any hints of that would probably come later at the poker table. Her famed ice-maiden visage should keep them at a distance. Or at least, it had always sufficed until Holbrook.
She readily located the manager, who knocked his pen off his inkwell w
Finally, the fellow fumbled an immense black key into his hand and set off. The stairs’ magnificence matched the foyer, with thick red carpeting, glossy wood, and glowing chandeliers flaring amid brightly polished brass. But the minute they stepped away from the stairs, the hallways darkened and the glossy wallpaper was replaced by thin paint.
“And here’s your room, Miss Moreland,” the manager eventually mumbled when he reached the hotel’s far corner. He rattled his excuse for a key in the lock like a drunken drummer but finally managed to throw the door open. The solid pine panel swung wide until its casing creaked in protest.
He carried Charlotte’s carpetbag inside without a second glance to see if the door’s hinges had separated from the frame. Instead, he struck a match and lit the wall sconces, causing the gaslight to hiss like Cleopatra’s asp in protest.
Charlotte studied the room with eyes made wary by too many Western boomtowns. Its cleanliness was as welcome as the stagecoach driver’s liking for the hotel had been. Her grubstake was split up and hidden in multiple places so a robber couldn’t take all of it. The poker circuit liked the place, too, since they’d recommended it for the tournament. That and its discount for lady poker players had made her break her previously inviolable rule never to attend a major tournament.
Even so, she was risking her money and her body. She’d make her own decision about whether or not to stay.
The gaslight’s golden light spread cautiously over a bedroom tiny even by boardinghouse standards. A narrow iron frame was jammed against one wall to support a cheerless mattress. She could stand beside it in her bloomers without rapping her elbow on the wall. But could she twirl to check her bustle’s fit? Not likely.
Two doors were somehow squeezed into the miniscule layout. Heavy velvet drapes framed the window like iron bars, while the neighboring building’s raw timber loomed through the lace curtains. A narrow gap allowed a view out to the street where heavy clouds obscured the distant peaks.
“Hmm,” Charlotte remarked noncommittally. How much would it cost for a larger room? Complete privacy was always hard to guarantee in a Western boomtown, especially within its sole hotel during a high-stakes tournament.
The manager shoved her carpetbag against the exterior wall. The gaily flowered wallpaper billowed and an ice-cold draft ripped through the room and across her toes.
Charlotte’s smile tightened. Stage sets would be more trustworthy than this hotel’s walls. Both were painted paper over flimsy pine boards. At least theaters paid actors to hide behind the partitions. In these mountains, greedy hotel managers demanded that desperate travelers pay them for the privilege of doing so. A conversation could be heard three doors away and a fist could punch through walls. A blizzard’s howling gales could reduce the entire structure to firewood.
Perhaps she’d winter in California, after all, away from Colorado’s heavy snows and any chance of being seen by somebody from Boston. It was only September, with no snow on the railroad routes yet. She took chances only with the cards, never with her life.
She donned her most appreciative expression, the one applauded by her deportment instructors.
“Sir,” she began and fixed her gaze on the hotel manager. After all, he was the man best equipped to improve her accommodations.
“Well, well, Miss Moreland.” The doorknob rattled against the wall and its frame squeaked. “What do you think of my fine hotel?” boomed a harsh Georgia voice.
Charlotte’s skin flushed and she silently cursed the lapse, a tell any beginning poker player could read. She couldn’t afford any handicap, especially not when it bared the truth. Not anymore, not without anybody to back her.
She reluctantly turned to face Isaiah Johnson, the town’s notorious mayor.
He leaned against the door like a grizzly at summer’s end, too thick and contented to move fast yet sporting the biggest, sharpest claws in the forest. He was dressed like a bear, too. Though he was garbed in a great tailor’s finest efforts, his scarlet brocade vest displayed more tawdry self-indulgence than any dancing bear would sport.
His gaze would admirably suit a grizzly—a self-satisfied smirk of anticipation for the coming meal.
Her stomach flopped upward like a terrified salmon toward her throat. He couldn’t possibly be her enemy, not when they’d first met only days ago in Leadville and exchanged fewer than a dozen words.
Behind her, she heard the manager’s breathing quicken.
She sucked in more stale air through her gritted teeth.
“It’s very beautiful and you must be proud The Silver King was built so quickly. Wasn’t silver discovered less than a year ago, after gold was found?” She offered her best conversational red herring.
“Yes, ma’am, silver flowed right before my saddle-partner and I moved here.” He was watching his manager closely, even though he addressed her. “Do you find your room acceptable?”
A chilly draft slithered past her neck and she rushed into a conversational platitude far too fast.
“Yes indeed, it’s very lovely. I particularly admire the vibrant shade of red you found for the cabbage roses.” A shade she’d never choose for her own dwelling.
“Thanks. Some fancy Atlanta company sent them up here.” He glanced around the room, as if congratulating himself on every detail. “Since you’re so happy”—the manager nodded vehemently—“guess I’d better be moving along to see how my other guests are settling in.”
“Mr. Johnson!” Drat it, that came out more sharply than she would have liked.
The hotel manager froze in his tracks, inches away from her elbow.
“Yes, Miss Moreland?” Johnson’s tone turned hostile. He shot the hotel manager a sharp glare and the much smaller fellow spread his hands wide, quickly disclaiming any knowledge.
“These quarters are elegantly decorated but not as”—she hesitated, then chose the most accurate, if not flattering, term—“private as I’d hoped for. May I please be transferred into another room?”
The hotel manager trembled.
“Miss Moreland, you do realize there is a big poker tournament being held here right now?”
“Yes, of course.” What nonsense was he spouting? Dammit, she was entered in the tournament. “But I’d be happy to pay more.”
“A lady of your quality”—for the first time, his voice dripped insolence—“can hardly be expected to share a room with strange men.”
“Certainly not, sir!” She stared back at him, her spine rigid with centuries of blue-blooded Bostonian self-possession.
“I’m the owner of this hotel and I swear this is the only single room we have.”
“It has two doors,” she snapped back. “And no lock on the second door.”
“Yes, you’re sure right about that.” Johnson’s expression immediately transformed back into the lazy bear. “Since your objection’s to that door, why don’t you check it out?”
A strangled noise escaped from the hotel manager.
She shot a startled glance at the fellow but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.
Johnson shifted slightly until his coat slid away from his hips and gunbelt. He raised an eyebrow.
The manager quivered again, then clutched his notebook close to his chest like a shield.
“I must check on the other guests.” He brushed past Charlotte, so desperate to escape that he almost ran on tiptoes to avoid stepping on her skirts.
What on earth? Was Johnson so proud of this hotel that he didn’t want anybody else showing off his pride and joy?
“The second door, Miss Moreland?” Johnson urged, his smile deepening into a gourmand’s anticipation. “I’m sure you’ll be greatly surprised by the wonders beyond.”
A whisper ran over her skin but s
“Certainly, sir.” The sooner she refused the next room’s unknown contents, the sooner she could escape this hole, which didn’t even offer a chair to block any of its portals.
She wrenched open the interior door and strode through.
The room beyond was enormous compared to hers but dark as a goblin’s cave. Thick red velvet covered every surface, like a crimson invitation to ruin. Frosted globes on the ceiling and walls cast flickering pools of light, which barely dispelled the shadows.
A big man, all tiny pig eyes above a starched shirt front and diamond studs stretched taut over an immense stomach, glanced up at her precipitous entrance. A slow smile spread over his face, displaying cracked yellow teeth. He set down his bottle of whiskey far too fast.
Charlotte skidded to a halt, her skin colder than any arctic draft could account for. Oh damn, damn, damn.
“Miss Moreland. I hadn’t hoped to have the pleasure of seeing you again so soon.” Jasper Simmons, Colorado’s most powerful legislator, bowed to her mockingly. His reputation was worse than foul. Broken bones, even rape, were the least of the crimes laid at his door.
“Mr. Simmons.” She gave him a polite smile that she hoped didn’t resemble a grimace. She looped her bustle up behind her back where he couldn’t see, and started to reverse her steps.
His lips curved in anticipation.
Her pace quickened. She’d barely escaped the last time they’d met, back in Denver. She’d had a bolt-hole then but where would she go here, if Simmons decided to push his luck?