Copyright © 2015 Sawyer Belle
All rights reserved
This book is dedicated to Sarah, who has it in her to be diva or damsel in distress, yet daring, bold and endearing.
This novel is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
I would like to acknowledge the fans of the
Love in the Sierras
series. I can’t articulate how the show of love and support has helped me in the past year, which has proven to be a difficult one for me. If not for the continual encouragement (and pleading, in some cases) I may not have given Ruby and Dalton their story. At least not this soon. So, thank you to all who have followed these stories, fallen in love with these characters and locales, and given me such a wonderful audience to indulge. I do hope you enjoy this story!
And as always, R.C. Matthews, you make me better, girl!
Virginia City, Nevada
Hot tears slid down Marlena’s cheeks, streaking toward her bottom lip. She burrowed into Jess’s embrace, their arms locked so firmly she didn’t think they’d ever pull apart. At the age of thirteen, she’d never been parted from her older sister, and yet now she was minutes away from boarding a stagecoach that would take her across the country without Jess. Their sniffles filled the air, drowning out the flurry of the busy town folk until the woman waiting beside the coach huffed impatiently. Marlena closed her eyes, savoring the final moments with her sister. It was the hardest goodbye of her life.
“Come along,” the waiting woman called. “We’ve a long journey ahead.”
Marlena looked toward her. “I appreciate your patience, Miss Sarah Jeanne. Another minute, please?”
Sarah Jeanne, the Opera Queen, rolled her slanted hazel eyes before gathering her voluminous hoop skirt in dramatic fashion and climbing into the coach. She plopped onto her seat and fluffed the ruffled layers of fabric as it spilled over the lap of the gentleman sitting beside her, Harrison Brady. As manager of the Opera Queen, Marlena was sure he was used to being encroached upon.
Finally, the sisters peeled away from one another and Marlena felt the gentle wipe of Jess’s thumbs against her wet cheeks.
“You take good care of my sister,” Jess told Sarah Jeanne. “She’s the only one I have.”
“I will,” Sarah Jeanne replied. “Under my tutelage and care she’ll become one of the finest opera singers to grace the land. She’ll have opportunities a place like this could never afford. But not if we
don’t get moving
Marlena squeezed Jess’s hands before turning to hug her future brother-in-law. The hugs continued down the line to everyone she’d come to think of as family over the past year. Morgan and Lila Kelly. Ellie and Sandy Bowen. Emily Stacy. Argyle Cameron. Juliet Cunningham and her eighteen-year-old son, Dalton.
Marlena hesitated, taking in Dalton’s swollen left eye, circled by a deep purple bruise. There was a scab the shape of a lightning bolt streaking through his bottom lip. She shook her head and tsked.
“Fighting again, Dalton?”
“This is nothing,” he said, batting the air. “The other fella got worse than he gave, believe me.”
She rolled her eyes playfully, but used her last moments in Virginia City to study the planes of his beautiful face. His eyes narrowed slightly when he grinned, and their bright blue irises burrowed into hers, flooding her cheeks with heat. His lips curled to one side and he held his hands out wide.
“What’s the matter, Little Miss? No hug for me?”
Her young girl’s heart fluttered at the idea of being in his arms again after the one dance they’d shared. He was only five years older, but she knew it was too much to expect his heart was bouncing as frantically for her. Of course, she was nothing but a child to him, as clearly evidenced by those two words.
. She blinked away the sad realization and closed the distance between them with a soft smile.
“Goodbye, Dalton,” she said into his chest as his scent drifted over her. Sandalwood, soap and leather.
“You take care out there,” he whispered against her ear, before placing a light kiss on her cheek. “I made you a little something.”
A rush of tingles and heat surged through her body, and her cheeks twitched against the width of her grin as he pulled out a whittled horse and set it in the palm of her hand. Her fingers folded gently over it.
“Now you have a piece of home with you wherever you go.”
“I’ll treasure it always,” she said, and Sarah Jeanne’s voice broke through the heady sensations usurping her body.
“Marlena, if you please! We haven’t any more time to spare.”
“Coming,” Marlena answered as she hurried toward the carriage and shouted over her shoulder to her sister. “I’ll write as often as I can.”
She climbed inside, taking a seat between Sarah Jeanne’s maid and bodyguard. The mules set off with a lurch, and Marlena watched her loved ones shrink in the distance. A final teardrop slid down her cheek and she wiped it away resolutely.
No more tears.
An exciting new venture was underway, one that would lead to grandeur and notoriety, to dreams realized and an entourage of followers she’d touch with her musical talents. A life on the stage.
“I think it’s best we clear the stars from your eyes before we go any farther,” Sarah said, cutting through her musings.
“What do you mean?” Marlena swallowed thickly as Sarah leaned forward, an earnestness pinching her facial features.
far from gracing the stage, my dear.”
Marlena’s brow furrowed. “But you said I showed promise.”
“You do,” Sarah returned. “But so does a dog that fetches. Singing in church weddings is one thing, but if you are to decorate a true stage you must be steadfast and dedicated to your studies. It takes more than talent to earn celebrity. You must be polished, musically and in all other ways. You’ll need to pass for a true bred lady.” The woman’s eyes slimmed to tiny feline slits. “This
what you want for your future, isn’t it? If not, we can stop the carriage right now.”
Marlena felt a weight press upon her chest, as if the answer would change the course of the Mississippi. She nodded. “This is what I want. I want to be just like you.”
Sarah sighed and sat back upon her seat cushion, allowing a grin to soften the pout of her mouth. “Do you know the meaning of the word ‘opera’?”
Marlena bit her lip and shook her head.
“It means ‘work’ and don’t ever forget it.” The bright hazel eyes of the Opera Queen bore into Marlena’s like fire. “If you want to be like me, you’ll have to work for it…and it will take years.”
Marlena nodded, confident and sure. From that moment on, life would be structured and rigid, but she would embrace it, master it, and in so doing, she’d earn a life built from her own talent and work. An opportunity like this was rarely afforded to poor orphan girls, and she wouldn’t waste it, but use it to make her sister proud. She pushed aside her grief, knowing that a horizon of hope loomed before her. Leaving was sad. But moving on? That was a song yet to be written.
Five years later
The pungent stench of fresh horse droppings hung in the air as Dalton crouched behind a stall in the stables and peered through streamers of sunlight bursting between the slatted walls. He knew the men were out there, but he wasn’t sure how many. He’d heard their approach, seen the cloud of dust kicked up by their horses, and had taken what precious little time he had to get Maxwell to safety, glad he’d predicted this exact scenario and was prepared for it. He’d had enough jobs over the last five years to know the kidnappers would wait to strike until the boy’s parents had gone from the ranch, leaving him home alone with his governess. What
hadn’t counted on was that Dalton Cunningham had been hired to protect the child.
Peeking through a hole to the outside world, his gaze slid along the house’s front porch and down to the latched doors of the root cellar, knowing the four-year-old was stuffed safely into a potato sack down below and his governess was locked in her room with a loaded gun.
Dalton’s revolvers were heavy in his palms, fully loaded. The two Colt percussion revolvers tucked behind his belt were primed as well. He’d spent a good half hour oiling and packing the barrels himself for greater accuracy. Ready-made cartridges filled his breast pocket, should he need them, but they weren’t as reliable as his own loads. The four guns gave him twenty-four bullets. That ought to be enough.
Years of experience had honed his instincts to a deadly precision, and he knew patience and stealth were the skills he needed most at that moment. A man appeared in Dalton’s range of vision and checked the front doors. Locked. Dalton rolled his eyes.
Did you think it would be that easy?
When that same man descended the porch steps and jiggled the latch on the root cellar, Dalton held his breath. Soon, two men stood in front of the cellar and Dalton knew he needed to draw them away from Maxwell. He grabbed a horseshoe and threw it toward a nest of pigeons in the rafters. The birds scattered, beating their wings upon the wooden beams, and the men turned toward the barn.
That’s right. Over here, fellas.
They headed his direction, gesturing to others he couldn’t see, and he wondered how many he was up against. He faced the barn door and waited in silence. A fly buzzed around his cheek, landing on his bearded jaw, but he left it undisturbed, not risking the noise of batting at it. Even the sound of a cocking gun hammer could give away his position so he sat, still as an ancient Bristlecone Pine. The reward came minutes later when footsteps approached the barn. The door opened slowly and the barrel of a gun slid into view.
Come on in
The man came fully into view and his eyes roved in a full circuit of the barn, but they missed Dalton peeking through a hole in the wood. He stepped in and gestured for others to join him. Dalton counted as they entered.
One, two, three, four
. He could handle four men. They spread out inside the barn and began their search. One of them finally called out.
“Oh, Maxwell? Come on out, son. We won’t hurt you. We promise. We just need to have a little chat with your pa, and we need your help.”
Dalton glanced at the root cellar to be sure Maxwell stayed put. Not a single stir of movement. He smiled.
. As soon as all four men were fully inside the barn, the time for waiting was over. Dalton bolted upright, cocking and firing in one swift motion, dropping two of the four before their heads had a chance to swivel in his direction. The other two turned and fired at him almost instantly and he had to dive and roll to avoid their bullets.
He kicked out a bottom board he’d sawn loose for this purpose and shimmied out of the barn, running around toward the front where he had the surprise of a fifth man waiting outside with the horses. Dalton’s boots skidded in the dirt as he reached up and fired. The body fell to the ground and the horses scattered. The two men inside heard his shot and began firing out of the front of the barn. Dalton ducked and dived away from the barrage and retraced his steps, crawling back through the space he’d made with his kick. The men inside had their backs to him and he grimaced, hating to shoot them in the back.
“Hey!” he called as he ran toward them. They turned and fired, but he was in a better position and far more accurate. Their bullets went wide. His ended their lives. In the thick silence that followed, he stood panting, letting the rush of it all scurry through him until he took a few deep breaths and left to do a full sweep of the property before ending at the root cellar. He unlocked the latch and pulled the doors open.
“It’s all right Maxwell,” he called down. “It’s me, Dalton. You can come out now.”
The potato sack began to move. Slowly, the opening slid apart and a tiny face poked through, wide-eyed and dirty as the spuds. The two locked eyes and Dalton smiled until a fat tear streaked down the boy’s cheek. He climbed down and lifted Maxwell out of the sack and into his arms.
The boy’s parents were due home soon, so Dalton took him to the rain barrel, cleaned his face and set him on his lap on the porch rocking chair. He took his hat off and put it on Maxwell’s head. They rocked, looking out to the west as Dalton pointed out mountain peaks and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Soon, the tears dried and Maxwell fell asleep against Dalton’s chest.
“You’re safe, little buckaroo,” Dalton whispered as he rubbed the boy’s back.
When the buckboard rattled up to the house and Mrs. Buford saw the dead man in front of her barn, she screeched and jumped from the wagon, calling out for her son. She was soon quieted by her husband, who locked eyes with Dalton on the porch. Within seconds, Mrs. Buford was hoisting a sleeping Maxwell from Dalton’s arms and checking him for any bruises or cuts before she clutched him to her in a fit of tears.
Reginald Buford calmly climbed the steps to his porch, where Dalton rose to shake the man’s outstretched hand.
“So, it was as you suspected,” Reginald said. “He would try to take Max after we’d gone. I knew he couldn’t stomach our business falling through.”
Dalton nodded toward the body sprawled in front of the enclosure. “There’s four more in the barn.”
Reginald’s eyes went wide. “Five men? You bested
men on your own?”
Dalton bent over and retrieved his hat from where it had fallen on the porch. He fitted it on his head as he nodded in response. “I’d best be going, Mr. and Mrs. Buford. You probably ought to tell the governess it’s safe to come out now. I hope you’ll pardon me if I don’t do the clean up?”
“Of course, Mr. Cunningham.” Reginald shook Dalton’s hand again, seeming reluctant to let it go as his eyes glistened. “I don’t know what to say other than I am forever in your debt. I can’t fathom what would have happened if they had gotten hold of my Max…”
His voice trailed off and Dalton patted the man’s shoulder. “But they didn’t, and your family should sleep well tonight. Now, I’m headed to Virginia City.”
“I’ll wire the rest of the money to your account, and then some.”
“No need for that. An agreement is an agreement.”
“Still, there is no price too high for what you’ve done.”
Dalton shook his head softly. “No need. Just tell Maxwell goodbye for me. I grew quite fond of the little man in our time together.” He stared at the boy for a long moment before turning back to Reginald, whose face took on a curious look.
“You’re not anything I imagined a hired gun to be. I heard you were ruthless, but I’ve seen no evidence of that in the three months you’ve been here.”
“Thank you for the compliment.”
“I also heard your record is flawless. Now,
I can see.”
“Flawless may be a bit of a stretch,” Dalton said, remembering a job four years ago where the villain had gotten away but not with the little girl Dalton had been protecting. While others claimed the job a victory for Dalton, he didn’t see it that way. A killer on the loose was a failure.
“Well, you are certainly victorious here, and you are welcome in our home any time,” Reginald said, cutting through Dalton’s thoughts.
They shook hands again and Dalton climbed onto his horse. He rode down the drive and turned once to survey the family embracing on the porch. A sense of peace and subtle longing moved through him. There was something about the boy that reminded Dalton of himself at that age, only Maxwell had a loving father where Dalton had never known his. He hoped the small contribution he made that day to the Buford family allowed them to live a long and happy life as a family.
Reginald waved. Dalton tipped his hat and turned his horse, spurring toward the brown slopes of Mt. Davidson and the only real home he’d ever known in Virginia City. He hadn’t seen his mother in three months, not since he took the Buford job. It was one of the longest stretches of time they’d spent apart since he’d left his job as doorman of her brothel four years ago.
He had no complaints about the work he’d done there. In truth, he didn’t see much difference between that and the work he did now. Both involved the protection of the innocent and fairer, and it seemed to be the only thing he was truly good at. The biggest distinction between a shootist and a brothel doorman was the pay. The ladies took the lion’s share of money flowing into the brothel, and he couldn’t begrudge them that.
There was more to the hired gun business for him than the money, though. The esteem, the reputation, the feeling of being his own man and not some whelp riding his mother’s skirt hem was invaluable. Still, he didn’t like being too far from her at any time. Virginia City had grown in size and raucousness, and the number of ruffians revolving through his mother’s rooms was worrisome. He’d remove her from the business altogether, but he knew it was impossible. With neither of them owning any skills or the ability to hold respectable positions in society, they had to earn their living doing what they did best, and that was killing and whoring.
By the time he reached the city, dawn was a few hours off, and the nighttime revelers were starting to stumble and stagger away from the city center and disappear into the dark night. He unsaddled his horse in the barn and gave him a bucket of oats before entering through the brothel’s back entrance. A crowd of familiar female faces greeted him with warm smiles until one in particular parted the throng and threw herself into his arms, molding her ripe red lips to his.
“Mi amor,” she cooed when she finally pulled back to flash him a wide and beautiful grin.
“Rosa,” he returned with a smile. “God, you’re a sight for this lonely mountain man.” He ran his hands through the lengths of her shiny black hair and she pressed her large breasts against his chest. He could feel the hard buds of her nipples and his body stirred in response, but before he could tend to his physical needs he heard the shut of a door from upstairs and looked aloft to find his mother gazing down on him.
“Morning, Ma,” he called, and she returned his smile, but there was a deep sadness in her eyes, and he could tell she’d been crying. A fierce protectiveness broke open inside of him, and he disentangled himself from Rosa’s embrace. He took the stairs two at a time, rushing past his mother and straight into her room.
“Dalton, what’re you doing?” she called from behind as she followed him.
“Where is he?” Dalton demanded.
He pulled the window curtains wide, looking behind them before searching beyond the dressing screen. “The bastard who’s upset you. I’ll skin him when I find him.”
“Dalton, stop,” she demanded. “There’s no one here.”
He faced his mother. “Then why have you been crying?”
By then, the hallway outside her room was filled with curious women and even some men who were trying make their way down the stairs. Rosa went to his mother’s side and put an arm around her waist.
“Is everything all right, Juliet?” the woman asked.
“Yes, everything is fine,” Juliet returned with a huff, tucking strands of her dyed bright red hair behind her ears. “Everyone clear out of here. I want some time with my son.”
Once the room was empty and the door shut, Juliet nodded for Dalton to sit at a table by the window. She crossed the space and ran a hand lovingly over his cheek. “Glad to see you’ve survived this round.” Her words were heavily accented from Britain and full of disappointment.
“Don’t try to deflect the subject,” Dalton returned. “Besides, I’m tired of having the same argument with you. I leave you to your business. Leave me to mine.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, young sir. I’m still your mother no matter how grown you are.”
Dalton kept the conversation on track. “And why has my mother been crying?”
Juliet sighed, went to the secretary and pulled out a letter, holding it toward him.
“I received a letter from my mother yesterday,” she explained.
Dalton drew up short. “Your mother? The one who hasn’t spoken to you in twenty-three years?”
Juliet leveled her eyes at him. “Well obviously, Dalton. How many mothers do you think I have?”
He shook his head. “Sorry. I’m just surprised is all. What did she say to upset you?”