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eBook by Linda Andrews
eBook Category: Romance/Fantasy
eBook Description: Gillian Grey knows all about men and their desire for money. Aidan Baird is just a rougher version of all her other suitors--a man willing to put up with her dubious ancestry for a share of her money.
Aidan's dream of obtaining a ranch requires a down payment in gold--gold he's willing to earn escorting his boss's daughter around the desert on a "botanical expedition." But Gilly isn't looking for flowers. She's hot on the trail of Jack the Ripper. As the body count mounts, Aidan may have to sacrifice more than money to keep her safe.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications/Zumaya Embraces, Published: 2010, 2010
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2010
3 Reader Ratings:
"Andrews has a talent of writing her words so vividly that you feel like you are right in the midst of the drama, living it right along with the characters." -- Paige Lovitt, Reader Views
Yuma, Arizona Territory
"You expecting a shipment, Baird?" The wrinkled stationmaster shuffled closer to Aidan, shoving sand and broken bristles ahead of his broom. With a flourish, he swept the pile off the landing, where a gust caught the debris midair and sprinkled it back across the platform surrounding the Southern Pacific Hotel and Depot.
"Hurry!" A man's shout drifted down from the balcony, while in the dining room behind Aidan plates scraped and glasses chinked. Workers and passengers trickled onto the platform. The Arizona sun and building heat distorted the images unprotected by shade.
"You could say that." Aidan jerked a pouch from his vest and inhaled the pungent scent of a fresh plug of black tobacco. The cured leaves crunched under his fingers as he added several pinches to the paper. With economical movements, he finished rolling his cigarette, stuck it in his mouth and returned the paraphernalia to his pocket. He struck a match against the sole of his boot; his cupped hand protected the tiny flame against the wind teasing dust devils from the sandy desert floor across the river. Bitterness exploded on his tongue, and the smoky heat filled his lungs.
Yes, sir, Aidan Baird was expecting a shipment. A shipment of money, class and stubbornness, all bearing the sobriquet of Miss Gillian Grey. Paper crackled under his knuckles as he flicked ash from his vest.
After escorting her on this little jaunt, he would be a man of property, a success, and he owed it all to Miss Grey's father. In this land of the free, when most employers posted "No Irish Need Apply" signs, Everett Grey had given Aidan a job peddling the wares of G&G Enterprises. While hawking the merchandise in the hottest corner of Hell, he'd managed to put aside some money toward buying his own spread. The gold he'd earn escorting the boss's daughter around the desert would cover the land, house and a little extra. Aidan spat sand and flakes of tobacco out of his mouth and ground the stub of his cigarette under his heel, ignoring the scorpion near his boot. Tugging his bowler lower, he strode to the corner of the platform away from the mushrooming crowd.
Several yards from the railroad depot lay the roiling Colorado River. Its red water sucked at the arrow weed clinging to the banks. Laughter floated off the deck of the steamboat moored near the station. Soldiers ambled aboard the boat, awaiting transport to forts and outposts upriver.
A column of soot belched from the stack as the approaching train reached the incline. When the giant black engine clattered onto the bridge, the crowd behind him stirred. Aidan tilted his head back and returned his thoughts to the impending task.
At first, he'd been confused why an heiress would want to search for wildflowers in the desert. The notion didn't agree with his firsthand knowledge of the Greys' position in society. Those women couldn't dress themselves, think for themselves or go anywhere without servants to fetch and carry. Then he'd found the article.
The paper crinkled under his fingertips when he reached inside his jacket. Not the soft whisper of rolling paper but the stiffness of newsprint. Aidan tugged the creased clipping from his pocket and unfolded it.
The upcoming nuptials of heiress Gillian Grey to William Shelby III were postponed after the bride-to-be christened her affianced groom with the champagne punch served during Mr. and Mrs. Thorndike's annual spring ball. Miss Amelia S, the prospective groom's sister, said the baptism was completely unprovoked, and that Miss G. was simply showing her true colors. Colonel Upton, late of Her Majesty's Service, witnessed the debacle and said it was a sad waste of fine champagne.
Miss Grey, accompanied by her two sisters, was spotted fleeing the scene while guests attempted to revive the prostrate hostess.
Aidan refolded the clipping and returned it to his pocket. Miss Money had argued with her intended. Their discord must have driven her desire to sketch wildflowers in the desert.
Remembering Everett Grey's grilling about his proficiency with firearms, disquiet itched the skin between Aidan's shoulder blades. He shrugged off his unease. Gillian Grey was the man's oldest daughter--naturally, he'd want to make sure she'd be safe. Aidan owed the man that much. He'd also do his duty and see she was as comfortable as possible. Of course, where they were going, the comforts she'd consider commonplace would not available.
He removed his watch from his vest pocket and cleaned it with a worn cotton handkerchief. Not that she'd have to suffer such privations for long. According to Mr. Grey's telegram, this little expedition would end before the real heat set in.
The stationmaster waddled up behind Aidan and fingered the brass buttons of his navy-colored vest. Gray sprinkled the bushy muttonchops protruding from his sagging jowls.
"You expecting any more of them fancy bits my wife's partial to?"
"There's always some fancy bits." And this time the fancy bit was a lady, the daughter of G-and-G Enterprises herself. Not that he'd tell the stationmaster--the old man gossiped more than a bitter spinster. Aidan cracked the knuckles on his right hand then his left. And what kind of man purchased harmony in his own house with pricey frippery? I'll never be such a man.
The stationmaster rubbed his hands together. "Come by the house, first thing, let Eunice have a look at 'em."
"That'll keep her happy for a bit." Aidan stepped back as the train chugged across the bridge spanning the Colorado River.
"Yep. And everyone knows a happy wife means a sober husband." By way of thanks, the stationmaster thumped Aidan on the back.
Air coughed out of his lungs, and he staggered forward two steps right into a cloud of soot and coal dust. Ash fluttered from the stack, dusting everything near the shuddering engine with black snowflakes. The bell clanged, and sparks sprang from the grinding metal wheels as the engine came to a stop beyond the platform and a shrill whistle announced their arrival.
Aidan coughed the burn from his lungs and shuffled backward. A score of passengers disembarked while an equal number surged forward to take their place. The smell of sour sweat, dust and excitement filled the air. A woman with a baby jostled his elbow. He stepped aside and lifted his bowler then returned to his position. Propping his left shoulder against the upper balcony's support post, he crossed his left ankle over his right and hooked his thumb in his waistband. Nothing stirred in the private carriage Freedom tacked behind the Pullman sleepers. Had Miss Grey missed the train or decided against the expedition? His stomach knotted at the thought. Straightening his coat, he strode toward the private car.
As he neared the last sleeper, a bevy of soiled doves descended from the train. Scarlet, canary-yellow and emerald-green finery accented glimpses of shapely limbs. A black-haired beauty displayed a heavenly amount of breast, but the redhead...
Aidan envisioned the long legs on the woman. His body quickened as he pictured such a pair wrapped around his waist. The fallen woman caught his eye, wet her lips then winked at him. He winked back. He felt his body heat then cool as the saloonkeeper marched across the depot, exchanging his old crop of prostitutes for the new one. Good riddance.
Seething in silence, the departing group of five women headed toward the Sunset Express. Their suspicious eyes raked him and every other man standing on the platform. Aidan fidgeted, tugged his hat off his head and thumped it against his leg. Clouds of white dust and black soot rose from his trousers with each beat. He crammed his bowler back on his head and stared back. Hell, just because one of their kind had wandered off and got eaten by wolves wasn't call to look at a man as if he were a killer.
The redhead in green separated from the arriving pack and sashayed over. When she stopped in front of him, Aidan touched the brim of his hat.
"Care to buy a parched girl a drink, handsome?" The woman's chipped fingernail snaked down his vest before perching on his waistband. The musky scent of sex stung his nostrils. His stomach clenched. Nothing like spoiled goods to dampen a man's desire.
"Some other time, sweetheart."
"I'll be waiting, and I just bet you're worth waiting for." She flashed a smile at a couple other men before joining her sisters on their walk to Maiden Lane. Several men strolled off the platform, tracking the soiled doves from a discreet distance.
Aidan did a rapid survey of the depot. Except for the drably garbed woman talking to the gangly hotel porter, the platform had cleared of passengers. The two seemed in lively conversation as she pointed to her eight crates and his wheeled pallet. Ignoring them, Aidan stared at the private car. Water gurgled from the cistern across the tracks into the waiting train. Although the Greys were well-traveled, he knew society ladies didn't leave their house without a proper escort. Adjusting his hat, he continued along the platform toward the private car.
Wheels creaked, pulleys and tackle clanked as crates swung from the railcar to the steamboat's cargo bay. The stationmaster exchanged postal bags with the conductor. Accompanied by a belch of steam from the locomotive, soldiers hurried into a railcar and shoved boxes out.
Damn, he had to get Miss Grey off the train. He increased his pace and collided with a soft barrier smelling of lilacs and sunshine. His brain registered the shapely woman in his hands even as he steadied her on her feet.
"My apologies ma'am."
He tried to move away, but a small hand on his arm stopped him.
Aidan glanced down. His ghostly reflection wavered in the silk brim of the woman's hat.
"Ma'am." Aidan touched the edge of his bowler then shifted to the right. The woman and her ugly bonnet shadowed his movements. Couldn't she tell he didn't work for the Southern Pacific and didn't want anything to do with her and her crates? He stepped left then jumped farther away. Pain zipped up his shin as she mimicked his maneuvers and landed on the tip of his boot.
"The devil take it."
"Really, sir, a sore toe is hardly a reason to blaspheme."
Chuckles carried her husky notes. A five-dollar prostitute couldn't have sounded more tempting. Aidan jerked his boot out from under her foot. Muscles coiled and knotted as his hands settled on her shoulders, steadying her. If a lady could get a rise out of him, he needed to end his yearlong streak of celibacy. Maybe once he got Miss Grey settled...
First, though, he had to find the bloody woman before the train departed.
"I wouldn't have a sore foot or any other sin to confess if you had only stayed put, ma'am."
Guilt lashed him as soon as he spoke the words. He knew better than to treat a lady that way. Before he could apologize, she tilted her head back. Clear green eyes twinkled at him from the shade of her ugly bonnet, and the afternoon sun glowed on her porcelain skin.
"If I had stayed put, as you so quaintly stated, I would be halfway to another territory by now."
Humor lifted the corners of her Cupid's-bow mouth. Aidan felt an answering grin on his lips. He liked a woman with sass--too bad he lacked the time to get better acquainted.
He maneuvered the tempest to the side and dusted the feel of her from his hands. He had an heiress to coax off the train, but couldn't resist the opportunity to flirt just a little.
"Lady, I'd think you'd get a lot further with a man if you batted those pretty eyes of yours instead of inflicting bodily injury on him."
"Really, Mr. Baird."
Baird. The woman knew his name. Dread trailed an icy finger down his spine; certainty cloaked his frame like too-tight skin. His gaze flew to the rumpled and travel-stained clothing. Quality, but not this year's fashion. Miss Sass must be Miss Grey's chaperone. How could he have forgotten that ladies of fortune never traveled alone? Ah, hell. His wagon might accommodate one woman, but not two and their eight trunks.
"You are Mr. Aidan Baird, are you not?"
He sighed. He had a job to do and a plan to rethink now that he was responsible for an additional woman.
"Yes, ma'am, I'm Aidan Baird." Dodging the edge of her bonnet, he stepped closer and offer her his arm. "We'd better get your mistress off that train."
She glanced at his crooked arm before tucking her hand through it. "Mr. Baird--"
Miss Sassy's seductive tone distracted from the steel girding her voice. "Frankly, ma'am, I expected to escort one woman around the Sonoran Desert, not two. Maybe if we put our heads together we can come up with a solution to make you and your mistress comfortable on our journey."
Aidan's gut clenched when he inhaled the clean scent of soap coming off her skin.
"All aboard!" The conductor bellowed as steam hissed from the engine.
Aidan marched her closer to the private railcar. "The train won't keep forever."
"Mr. Baird!" She jerked her hand free from his arm, stepped one foot away from him, pivoted on her right foot then stepped closer. The brim of her bonnet grazed his jaw as she looked up. Irritation and amusement flared in her green eyes while pink stained her oval face. She raised the valise in her left hand as if to flatten him with it.
"Now, ma'am. We must..." Aidan cleared his throat, raised his hands and retreated a step. He stopped at the jagged edge of the platform.
"Mr. Baird." She set one hand on her hip and stared at him.
Pain racketed up his shin as her dropped valise landed on his foot, the same one she'd stepped on before. Awareness prickled between his shoulder blades. The woman had more than sass. Straight white teeth flashed behind pink lips. Aidan kicked free of her bag.
"Now, I know women don't like to be rushed, but the train is leaving."
"I simply wish to engage your undivided attention, Mr. Baird."
Aidan rubbed his jaw. She wanted his attention? Now? From the set of her jaw, he didn't think there'd be enough time to change her mind. Maybe, he should insist the companion stay behind.
"You have it."
"Thank you." Sassy tugged on the jacket hem of her traveling dress, brushed ineffectually at the dust coating the black material then cleared her throat. "I do not have a mistress, Mr. Baird. Neither do I travel with a companion."
White showed on Aidan's eyelids as his thumb and index finger dragged across them. Dread trickled down his back from the heat burning his neck.
"Delighted to make your acquaintance, Mr. Baird." The woman shoved her hand at him.
The wooden platform creaked under his feet. In all his thirty years, he'd never flirted with the boss's daughter. At best he'd be fired, at worst...
Shaking the thoughts from his head, he accepted her hand, registered the warmth from her palm and lack of gloves. Her fingers were calloused and surprisingly strong.
"I apologize for my earlier behavior, Miss Grey. I thought..."
"Apology accepted." She smiled at him before dropping her gaze to somewhere on his vest.
Could he really be forgiven that easily? Aidan blinked as the train whistle rent the air, and the black engine rumbled. The cars lurched forward one after the other, accompanied by the grind of metal against the tracks. After dipping to pick up her bag, she set her hand once again on the crook of his arm.
"Allow me." The latent gentleman inside him emerged. Aidan faced her then, intent on relieving her of her valise, slipped his fingers under hers. The brim of her bonnet whacked him on the chin before scraping the sensitive flesh.
"That won't be necessary." She stepped away from him, attempting to take her luggage and his fingers with her. Unable to proceed further, she stopped, and her eyes widened. Shock and confusion shimmered in their depths.
Aidan kept his grip in place, despite sensing the battle brewing. The woman acted like men didn't wait on her every day.
"I am capable of carrying such a small bit of baggage, Mr. Baird." A smile softened her lips, emphasizing the fatigue pinching the skin around her eyes. "I was told women were more independent in the Territories."
"Please, allow me to do this for you." He stepped closer.
She inhaled sharply. In her eyes, the green sharpened the gold flecks to fine points. A blush added color to her pale skin. "Th-Thank you."
Holding the bag, Aidan stepped back and exhaled a shaky breath. Despite the drab attire, she was a fine-looking woman. And he was an idiot. The lady was not just out of his league, she had a champagne-soaked fiance. He'd do well to remember that. The last thing he needed was to get involved in a rich lover's spat.
"Shall I see to your trunks?"
"Mr. James has already attended to them." She nodded toward the hotel porter wrestling with the eight trunks on the platform.
"I see." Aidan cleared the irritation from his throat. Why was she so used to taking care of herself? Weren't her kind cosseted and petted? He didn't like the notion that she was different. Because if she wasn't like the rest of the moneyocracy, then maybe a Mick like him...
He shut down the thought. Obviously, she was used to traveling, and the depot was familiar territory. Once they reached the hotel, she'd behave according to her station. He really needed her to behave in accordance with her station.
"If you would be so kind as to direct me to our lodgings, I wish to recover before we begin our adventure across the desert."
"Yes, ma'am." Aidan's gaze slid down her oval face, over her slim neck and stopped on her slight shoulders. She was exactly as he'd pictured. His conscience slapped the lie from his brain. Well, maybe not as helpless...
"Tell me Mr. Baird--"
"Aidan." He guided her across the nearly empty train platform, then steered her around the building's corner. Glancing over his shoulder, he bit his tongue. Neither formality nor fancy ball gowns had a place in the territories. He'd have to ask her to pare down her wardrobe after she'd rested. For now, he'd enjoy her company and pretend millions of greenbacks didn't separate them.
"Yes, um..." She paused at the edge of the sidewalk and wiped her free hand on her black dress.
"Aidan." He lowered his voice and watched a blush creep up her neck. A surrey rattled past, raising a cloud of white dust in its wake while its gold fringe gleamed in the sunlight.
"I was curious, Aidan." Her fingers spasmed along his forearm before she forced them to relax. "Are you quite certain a salesman can handle the extra duties?"
Five minutes. She had waited five bloody minutes before passing judgment. Was it his physique or his level of education she disapproved of? His lack of schooling he couldn't do much about. Poor folk had to work, and even the children could contribute. As for his strength, he might not be as brawny as some, but he was strong enough, and he knew the ways of the desert. He glanced down Main Street, seeing neither the adobe buildings nor the bustling crowd. He needed this job, needed the money it would provide.
Her hideous hat filled his left peripheral vision. Black like her heart. Why had he allowed her spirit to fool him? He tossed his shoulders back. No spoiled, superior kind of female would deprive him of his chance to be his own man and free his sister from a lifetime of servitude.
"I'm certain." He stomped forward, dragging her into the dusty street behind him. "Your father seemed quite content with my qualifications, ma'am."
"I see." Despite being almost a foot shorter than him, she kept up with his long strides. For some reason the notion didn't set well with him. "Naturally, I presumed, given the nature of our...expedition and its location, that you would carry a firearm."
Nature of their expedition? What was the woman prattling on about now? Sure, the flowers in the Territory might be a little more prickly than most, but they certainly wouldn't require shooting.
Aidan's thoughts rebounded, diffusing some of his anger. Tenderfeet often had the same impression as Miss Grey. The Territories were slowly taking to civilization, but given her rank in society, the town must seem fairly barbaric. He wondered how she'd react to the barren desert. He'd find out soon enough.
"I don't know what you've read in them dime novels, but it isn't necessary to wear my Colt strapped to my leg, especially in town. In my experience, such a display only attracts trouble." Something Aidan never had any problem with.
She nodded. The ugly hat bobbed like a vulture's head over freshly discovered carrion. "Then when we set off..."
"My pistol and rifle are always within reach."
"You are quite proficient in their use?" Excitement rang clearly in her question as they finished crossing the street.
Setting her bag down for a moment, he wrapped his hands around her waist and lifted her up a foot and a half onto the boardwalk. His fingers recognized the stiff boning of her corset and registered the flare of her hips. His trousers tightened. A man could appreciate such a delicate woman.
"Then you can teach me." Beaming in satisfaction, she picked up her bag and started walking along the boardwalk.
"What!" Aidan cleared his throat. Calm, man, remain calm. There were enough armed lunatics running around the Territory; he certainly wasn't planning to add to their number. "I promise, Miss Grey, you'll be perfectly safe without resorting to such extreme measures."
His voice remained soothing despite the frenzy of doubts writhing over his skeleton. Would he survive this job? He hadn't even gotten her to their hotel and his sanity was sloshing about inside his skull.
"Please believe I never meant to impugn your marksmanship, Aidan." Leaning closer to him as they passed the saloon, she squeezed his arm. "I simply wish to be taught the fine art of shooting." She glanced behind his back into the bar when they passed the open doors. Music and laughter drifted on the still air. "Certainly a man of your expertise can instruct me in its uses."
He could, but that didn't mean she wouldn't shoot him with his own gun. Perhaps there was another tack.
"What does your father have to say about this idea, Miss Grey?"
For a moment, her lips compressed into a thin line. "I imagine he thinks I shall not require such knowledge."
Aidan breathed a sigh of relief. Could her father be unaware of her interest in becoming another Annie Oakley? Everett Grey's steely eyes peered at Aidan from the safe distance of recent memory. He doubted anything got by the rich man.
"I promise to protect you, Miss Grey."
"Regardless, I wish very much to learn." She stopped in front of the hotel doors, pulled her arm free of his and faced him, entreaty in her green eyes.
Aidan's determination wavered. The Territories were a dangerous place.
"Will you teach me or no, Mr. Baird?" Her foot tapped against the sidewalk planking. Her fingers drummed against her hip.
The formality snapped her silken spell. "No, ma'am, I will not."
Her lip trembled for a moment before she raised her pointed chin and squared her shoulders. "I thought as much."
"Perhaps, once you get home, your father will find someone to teach you." Aidan opened the door to the hotel and motioned for her to precede him.
"By then it will be too late." She snatched her skirt aside and stomped passed him into the dark interior.
Aidan hefted her bag on his shoulder and followed her inside the lobby. Meeting Gillian Grey had certainly complicated the job. He only hoped she didn't have any more surprises up her sleeve.