Harlequin Historical #956
Out of print. Available as e-book.
Kate Wells sold herself in marriage once and will be damned if she'll do it again. The widow of a notorious man, she has had her fill of rich men who are used to getting their way. So when a rich railroad baron offers to make her his mistress, she turns him down flat, but reconsiders when her family's home is threatened.
Until he met Kate, Sam Pickett never had a reason to spend more than a night with a woman. Now his fascination for the Widow Wells is fast turning toward love. But when she is implicated in a plot destroy him, he must decide if he will listen to reason or follow his heart.
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The only difference between the women on the street corners and Kate Wells was that she’d only had to sell herself to one man.
His passing was a mixed blessing. Despite the scandal and her resulting fall from grace, Kate did regain her freedom as a result of his murder. And she much preferred her current work to the duty she had to perform in the marriage bed. Both kept her up at night, but she didn’t feel the need to wash after working in the milliner’s shop.
Tonight she had a full moon to guide her as she walked home along the American River.
Unfortunately the moonlight also served illuminated things that were best shrouded in darkness. The wide street that was not as deserted as it should be this time of night. Saturdays were always this way, men with money in their pocket and mischief on their minds.
Kate slipped a hand into her bag as she hurried on, groped about for the only useful gift her husband ever gave her. At last her fingers gripped the pearled handle of her husband’s Derringer. She hunched around the weapon as if she guarded it instead of the other way around. Her shoulder’s ached from her labors. There weren’t enough hours in the day to earn a living. Between the boarding house and the milliner’s, she worked sixteen hours a day and still they were falling behind.
She glanced at the three women, whose bare shoulders and seductive posture advertised their business, and wondered what they made an hour.
One woman gripped the elbow of a scrawny man as she met Kate’s gaze. It was like looking in a mirror. The confident pose, the false smile, Kate saw past all that and focused on the desperation glittering in the woman’s eyes. She recognized the despair and if frightened her down to her bones.
Kate wasn’t that hopeless yet, but it was a near thing, a nightly battle with the invisible line of respectability. Thus far she was only the widow of a thief. There were worse things.
Her gaze fixed on the crates just inside the alley. A steady gasping interspersed with grunts left little doubt as to what occurred just beyond her sight. She hugged her shawl more tightly and hastened on. Her husband had made such noises when he’d pushed himself inside her. She squeezed her eyes shut fighting to bury the memory.
As she approached the next alley, she heard a different sort of sound. Something crashing and then came cries of glee.
“That’s got him!” someone shouted.
She glanced between the buildings and drew up short at the scene. Two men and a woman were rifling through the pockets of a large man who struggled to rise from the packed earth.
Kate’s first impulse was to scream for help, which she did with gusto. This caused two burly men to stop offloading the steamer and glance to her. They came at a run. With this backup she charged into the alley herself. The villains looked so startled they simply stared.
The young woman held a black leather billfold.
Kate showed her pistol, thrusting her arm out before her like a sword. “Drop that right now!”
She didn’t, but instead turned and fled down the back end of the alley and out of sight.
The men held their ground.
“What are you doing to do with that, deary?” said one man taking a step forward.
“Stop or I will shoot you.”
He didn’t. She did.
The sound of the gun report was amplified by the narrow space, echoing off the walls. Her attacker fell to the ground, clutching his thigh. His partner lunged at her, slapping her weapon away and seizing her wrist. His fist cocked back. Kate had time only to close her eyes and brace for the blow, which she heard but did not feel.
Opening her eyes, she found the man she had defended now standing beside her with the thief laying at his feet. She stared in wonder at this man who had knocked his attacker unconscious with a single blow.
He drew his pistol then and aimed just as the two dock workers arrived.
“Saw it! Saw the whole thing!” one shouted.
“Get that one,” shouted the other and Kate turned to see the wounded man hopping around the corner as the two delivery men charged past her and after the fleeing man taking their lantern with them.
Kate found herself alone in the alley with the man she tried to rescue and his unconscious attacker. The only light came from the lanterns on the steamers behind him so she could not see his face. But he was tall and broad with light brown hair, a dark shirt of a heavy weave and denim jeans. Over the lot he wore a long duster, as if he had ridden in on horseback. Had he come out here to lean that woman up against a wall?
Kate felt trapped as she faced him. He nudged the fallen man with his boot. The thief showed no flicker of movement, beyond the rise and fall of his breathing, so her companion holstered his sidearm and took a step in her direction. He swayed as if drunk, but she smelled no whiskey. He stooped and retrieved her silver double shot pistol. When he straightened he had one hand pressed to his head and the other about her gun. He offered the pistol in an open palm.
“Thank you, miss.”
She plucked her Derringer from him and stuffed it into her bag when his hand fell heavily on her shoulder. She screamed and then realized that he was not attacking her, but rather falling.