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Denver, Colorado—March 1894
“I want that bastard.” Marcus Aurelius Thorne spoke from the depths of his overstuffed chair. He took careful aim with the dart he held and flung it at the target mounted on the wall opposite. The dart hit the edge of the board, bounced off, and stuck in the pockmarked floor beneath, feathers quivering. “I want Geoffrey Archer.”
“Yes, sir,” said Edward Ashton. He set down the tray with the decanter of whiskey and two cut glass tumblers that he carried, and frowned at the dart. “I trust your aim will be considerably more accurate in the case of Mr. Archer than it is with your darts, sir.”
Marcus glanced up at his very proper gentleman’s gentleman and grinned. “Mrs. Fitzhugh complaining about the holes in the walls and floors again, is she?”
Edward’s left eyebrow rose a fraction of an inch, a clear sign he was much moved. “Yes, sir. She has become quite...vocal about the matter, I’m afraid.”
“Tell her to raise the rent. That ought to satisfy her.”
Marcus plucked another dart from the box of darts on the table beside him, took aim, and threw. The dart hit the outer edge of the painted rings, wobbled for a moment, then tumbled out, flipped once in the air so its weighted tip was downward, and stuck in the floor not six inches from its mate.
Both Marcus and Edward stared gloomily at the two darts protruding from the carefully waxed wood. Edward sighed. “Whiskey, sir?”
“Thanks.” Marcus continued frowning at the dart as he picked up the neglected thread of conversation. “I hate liars, Edward.”
“Quite so, sir,” said Edward, setting the glass of whiskey by the box of darts.
“I hate liars and cheats and thieves. And Geoffrey Archer is the worst liar and cheat and thief I know.”
“The worst, sir? Or only the most accomplished?”
“Hmm. You’ve got a point there.” Marcus took a sip of the whiskey, savoring the bite and the dark, smoky flavor. He sighed. “I should have shot him when I had the chance. It would have saved us all a lot of trouble.”
“Yes, sir. It is a pity that particular opportunity was lost.” Edward deftly topped off the glass with more whiskey, then restoppered the decanter. “Given the wildness of the mining camps at the time, sir, I do not suppose there would have been more than a polite inquiry into the affair.”
“More like they’d have bought so many free rounds at the bar that I’d have been pie-eyed for a week.”
Edward frowned at the vulgarity. “Oh, I trust not, sir. You have always been one to hold your drink, just as a gentleman ought.”
Edward didn’t miss the sudden martial spark in his employer’s eyes, so wisely refrained from responding.
Marcus sighed, balked of the distraction an argument would have provided, then glared at the dart-less surface of the dart board opposite.
“It’s all turned so damned civilized, Edward.”
“Yes, sir. It is most distressing.” Edward didn’t manage to sound particularly distressed. Marcus was too sunk in his own gloom to care.
“First the ladies settle in, then Tabor goes mad and builds an opera house,” he muttered, “and now look where it’s gotten us. High society dinners and white ties in the hotels and calls to close down the saloons and fancy houses. Denver’s just not the town it used to be.”
He waved his glass in protest. “Why, these days there are enough ladies’ literary groups to choke a horse, and every one of ’em’s determined to put on a poetry reading!” He pursed his lips and trilled, “‘For the social improvement and moral enlightenment of the common man.’”
He snorted in disgust. “I ask you, Edward, is that any way for the common man to live?”
“I imagine you would say it was if you were married, sir,” that worthy responded imperturbably.
Marcus cocked a wary eye at him over the glass of whiskey. “Now you’re talking madness, just like my mother.”
“Not at all, sir. I was merely commenting on the difference in perspective.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever marry,” said Marcus after a moment’s morose thought. “Don’t get me wrong,” he added hastily. “I like women. They’re wonderful creatures, most of ’em, in spite of everything.”
“Exactly so, sir.”
“Trouble is, Edward, there’s no happy medium with ’em. Either they aren’t at all respectable, or they’re entirely too respectable and they’re determined to make their menfolk the same.” He sighed. “We just can’t win, no matter what we do.”
“No, sir.” Edward waited, but when Marcus continued to commune with the contents of his glass, he cleared his throat discreetly and said, “If I might inquire, sir...what is it that has caused you to bring up the subject of Mr. Archer after all this time?”
Marcus’s lean face darkened. “Wallace dragged me in. Another one of Archer’s little investment schemes has just crumbled, Edward, and it’s brought several good people who didn’t know what they were getting into down with it.”
His voice grew sharp with anger. “Archer is safe, of course. I’d be willing to bet he’s got quite a tidy little sum safely stashed away somewhere. But the folks who trusted him with their savings have lost everything...and there’s not a damned thing the law can do about it.”
Marcus abruptly snapped his glass down on the table, slopping whiskey onto the polished surface, and surged to his feet and began to pace.
Edward, wise in the ways of his employer, moved out of his way. Marcus paid him no heed. He shoved his hands in his pockets and stalked to the far side of the fashionable, over-furnished sitting room, then back again.
“Knowing how fond I am of Archer, Wallace came to me instead of wasting time with the police.”
“And since you are at loose ends at the moment—”
“I agreed to get involved. Archer has to be stopped, Edward.”
“I take it you are the one who is going to stop him, sir?” said Edward calmly.
Marcus came to an abrupt halt beside the chair he’d so recently occupied. For a moment, he simply stared at Edward, brows knitted in a frown. Then his thin lips slowly drew back in a wolfish grin.
“That’s right, Edward. I am going to stop him. I didn’t stop him years ago when I had the chance, but now I am going to bring Mr. Geoffrey Archer’s house of cards crashing down around him so completely that he’ll never be able to rebuild it.”
“Yes, sir,” said Edward.
With long-limbed grace, Marcus leaned across the chair and grabbed another dart out of the box. He studied the metal shaft with its brightly colored fletching, then abruptly turned and flung it at the dart board.
This time the dart didn’t tumble to the floor—it buried itself deep in the wall six inches from the far edge of the dart board.
Edward stared at the dart, his head cocked slightly to the side like a museum patron dubiously inspecting a painting.
Marcus glowered at the wall, then suddenly dropped into the chair.
“I may not be worth a damn at darts, Edward, but I promise you, Geoffrey Archer is one target I do not intend to miss,” he said defensively.
“No, sir,” said Edward, crossing to pluck the darts from the wall and floor.
“I won’t miss,” said Marcus darkly, “but it would have been a hell of a lot easier if I’d just shot him when I had the chance.”
Chicago, Illinois—March 1894
The only sounds in the room were the ticking of the clock on the mantel and the heavy rustle of her silk skirts as she slowly rocked back and forth. With the windows closed to shut out the lingering chill of early spring and the drapes pulled against the fading afternoon light, there wasn’t even a hint of the bustling city that lay beyond the iron-fenced limits of the hotel grounds.
The silence was strangely comforting, welcome after days of voluble, often tearful condolences from what had seemed an endless army of mourners.
Mary Allegra Constanza Donatto, orphan, closed her eyes and listened to the silence. Would it be possible, she wondered, if she was very quiet and listened very, very hard, to hear the lingering echoes of her father’s laughter?
She stilled the nervous rocking and let her breath grow shallow...and she listened.
The room echoed with his absence. All she could hear was the beating of her heart, as regular and muted as the metronomic tick of the clock. She sighed and forced her eyes open.
There wasn’t much to see. Since it was still too early for the gaslights, the only illumination in the big, velvet-hung room was the thin slash of sunlight where the curtains met imperfectly. The dull yellow cut across the carpet in front of her feet, casting the rest of the room into still darker shadow.
Papa would have hated the dark. He would have hated her sitting in it, trying to hear what was gone forever.
Carefully, Mary smoothed the heavy, dark purple silk over her knees. Papa had always disliked black. She didn’t think he’d have liked the purple any better, but there had to be some concessions to propriety, after all. She owed it to his memory, even though he’d have laughed and tweaked her nose at the notion.
Life is for the living, my girl, he’d have said, so you’d best be out and living while you can, and then he’d have galloped off with that slightly jerky, long-legged stride of his to see what he could get into next.
Well, Papa wouldn’t be getting into much of anything any more—not unless he found something to amuse him in Heaven, which she fervently hoped he would. For all she’d ever heard, though, it didn’t sound the sort of place he’d have liked. People fluttering around playing harps and singing hosannas and thinking nothing but holy thoughts all the time—not at all the sort of thing that would appeal to Alejandro Donatto, who had loved a laugh and a naughty joke almost as much as he’d loved the exuberant wonder of being alive.
It was like him to go quick like that, his glass raised high in a witty toast to some pretty woman who was another man’s wife. There’d been the usual host of smiling, admiring strangers all around him, laughing at the jest—friends, he would have said, since he’d never known a stranger.
They’d stopped laughing when Papa had keeled over, clutching his chest and spilling his wine over the skirts of the stout matron beside him. He hadn’t even ruffled his cravat in his fall. Mary had noticed that, despite the confusion and her fear. She’d actually taken some comfort from it. It was how he would have wanted to go, after all—quick and easy and perfectly done up, even at the end.
He’d looked good in his coffin, too. She’d chosen a handsome mahogany one with brass handles and ruched, white silk lining. Since Papa hadn’t yet played out his “game,” as he called it, she couldn’t really afford the coffin or the fancy tombstone or anything else she’d ordered.
It didn’t matter. Alejandro Donatto hadn’t believed in scrimping, and Mary wouldn’t have dreamed of trying. Not for his funeral, certainly. Not with half of Chicago high-society there to see. She wouldn’t have dreamed of scrimping for anything Papa wanted.
She’d ordered it all—the fancy hearse and the six black horses with their fine black plumes and an equally fine, black carriage for her and Emmalina and Vito. It wasn’t really appropriate for the two of them to be in the carriage with her, of course, but she’d insisted on that. They’d served her father since before she was born; she wasn’t about to deny them the right of following his coffin to the grave, no matter what any of Papa’s “friends” might say.
The black-garbed mourners had followed the hearse in solemn procession, honoring a man they’d scarcely met, yet couldn’t help liking and making one of them. There must have been two hundred people gathered around the grave, and another hundred or so gathered in the hotel ballroom for the dinner she’d offered afterward.
Mary’s lips curved in a faint, sad smile at the memory. Papa would have appreciated the crowd. He always had liked an audience.
She couldn’t have done any less, even in her grief. She’d always taken care of Papa—at least since Mama died, all those years ago—and she’d gone on taking care of him to the very end.
She didn’t know what she’d do now that she didn’t have him to worry about and fuss over and bully. She didn’t know what to do or where to go now that he wasn’t here to tell her.
What money was left was enough, barely, to pay for the funeral reception and the overdue hotel bills. It wasn’t enough to keep her, let alone Emmalina and Vito, too. Not for long, no matter how carefully they managed.
The sad truth was, she didn’t have Papa’s flare for...for making money. She never had, and she wasn’t likely to get it, no matter how much she needed it now. Not unless—
“Still sitting in the dark?”
The sharp query shattered her thoughts. Mary looked up to see Emmalina standing in the doorway, a stout, strong figure in black. “It’s...quiet here.”
“Hmpf,” was all Emmalina said, but she carefully shut the door, then stumped across the room to throw back the drapes.
The sudden blaze of sunlight made Mary wince.
“So,” Emmalina said. “What are we to do? Have you decided?”
Mary frowned down at her hands where they lay in her lap. Against the dark purple of her gown, they looked pale and weak and...useless. Beautiful, but useless.
“No,” she said. “No, I haven’t.”
“You could marry that Mr. Alexander.”
Mary gently set her chair to rocking. “Yes.”
“Or that Mr. Massincourt who’s been trailing after you since New Orleans.”
“Yes, I could marry him. He’s been very...loyal.” Her hands curled around each other until her nails dug into her flesh.
“And he’s very, very rich. He’d take good care of you, give you everything you want.”
The clocked ticked twice, thrice. “Yes.”
From outside came the faint clatter of a carriage pulling up to the hotel’s main doors. They both turned to listen, grateful for the distraction, however trivial. But sturdy, practical Emmalina was never diverted from her purpose for long.
“Love’s not everything, you know,” she said. The words came out roughly, as if she were forcing them.
Mary smiled faintly. “No, of course not.”
“You’ve let your father’s silly, romantic little tales turn your head.”
The smile turned to a soft laugh. “What was it that turned your head, then? It must have been something special to make sensible Emmalina Devore marry wild Vito Legrano all those years ago. And you a proper young English lady, too!”
“Hmpf!” said Emmalina.
Mary remained silent, but the corner of her mouth twitched in spite of her.
“All right, then,” Emmalina said at last, reluctantly. “I’ll admit I’ve never regretted marrying Vito, no matter what. And I’ll even admit that I had my share of romantical notions, too, once upon a time. Rather grand romantical notions, really.”
For an instant, her eyes grew unfocused, almost dreamy, and the grim set of her mouth eased. But only for an instant.
“Romance, hmpf!” she sniffed. “You just look at us now. I’ve grown fat and Vito’s as shriveled as an old prune. All of him, even the best bits!”
The minute the words were out, her fat cheeks turned a startling shade of crimson. Her dark little eyes sparked in irritation. “That’s your father’s influence!”
“Papa’s and Vito’s!” Mary laughed. “And no matter what you say, you still love Vito. You know you do!”
Emmalina snorted, a long, loud, gusty snort, as if she were determined to get any lingering romantical notions out of the very air she breathed, then clasped her hands under her vast, black bosom, and let her face fall back into a frown.
“That’s neither here nor there and has absolutely nothing to do with the problem at hand.”
Mary’s smile faded. “No, it doesn’t.”
“Sooo...what are we going to do?”
“I was thinking...”
The unfinished thought seemed to hang in the air before her like a dust mote floating in the streaming sunlight. Mary considered it, studying its invisible twists and turns and convolutions, then she rose with sudden decision and crossed to the ornate secretaire set against the wall. From a lower drawer she pulled out a small bundle of newspaper clippings and spread them out on the desktop.
Emmalina followed. She bent over the clippings, studying them suspiciously. “This one?” she asked, pointing to a sketch accompanying one of the articles. “Geoffrey Archer?”
“Your papa’s idea?”
“Hmmm.” Emmalina’s forehead creased into deep grooves as she read. “Mining, banking, railroads, land... Hmmm. Mmmm. Rrmm.” She was almost humming to herself, and as she hummed, the grooves on her forehead disappeared and her mouth pooched out thoughtfully. She turned back to the sketch. “Handsome man.”
“That doesn’t matter.”
Emmalina glanced up, disgusted. “Doesn’t hurt, either.”
“Well?” Mary demanded impatiently. “What do you think?”
“Your papa was sure about this Archer fellow? He worked it all out before he died?”
“Not all, no. But enough. And he was very sure.”
“You’ve never done this before.”
“But I watched Papa for years. I know enough. I think I know enough,” she added, suddenly a little less certain, a little less sure of herself.
Emmalina just stared at her doubtfully.
“What other choice do I have?” Mary demanded. “I can’t sew or cook or do much of anything except dress for dinner and pour out tea! What else is there? Teach French and Italian to someone else’s children?”
“You can marry one of those rich men who are always following you around! There’s a couple of young, good-looking ones in the bunch!” Emmalina retorted. “You can have a nice house and babies and all the spending money you want. You can stop worrying about Vito and me and you can forget all this,” Emmalina gestured to the clippings, “and you can think about yourself for a change instead of us!”
“And what will you and Vito do? Live off your savings? Except you don’t have any savings anymore, do you? You didn’t listen to me and you let Papa talk you into lending it to him and—”
“He would have paid it back!”
It was Mary’s turn to snort. “Of course he would have, and then he would have turned around and talked you out of it all over again. But Papa’s dead and I don’t want to marry any of the men who want to marry me and I really don’t want to be poor, which is what we would be if I tried to earn an honest, respectable living, so unless you have a better suggestion...?”
Emmalina remained silent. Disapproving and unhappy, but silent.
“No, I didn’t think so,” Mary said, and sternly repressed the tears that threatened at the back of her eyelids.
She gathered up the clippings and returned them to their place, then straightened and carefully dusted off her hands, as if brushing off the distasteful truths she hadn’t wanted to face any more than Emmalina.
“Tell Vito,” she said with sudden resolution. “We’ll need to get our things together, make our plans.”
Mary met Emmalina’s doubtful gaze squarely.
“We’re going to Colorado after this Geoffrey Archer, Emmalina,” she said. “We’re going to play Papa’s game...and we’re going to win.”