Runaway Hearts (Lawmen of the West Book 1)
A young woman fleeing to save her life.
An untrusting loner weighed down by guilt.
Two very different souls who find love in the booming American West . . .
Shortly after her beloved father's death, Emma Bradford becomes a runaway heiress when she overhears her beau and stepmother plotting to steal her fortune—and take her life. She jumps on a train headed to the American West and is instantly attracted to a handsome stranger on board.
Pinkerton detective Rye Callahan is assigned to protect an opera diva as she travels from New York to Colorado and remains undercover as a bodyguard during her engagement at Denver's newest opera house. Along the way, he encounters a beautiful woman who looks and sings like an angel, but Rye is married to his job and determined not to become involved with the woman romantically.
But Rye and Emma wind up living in the same house in Denver, and their relationship heats up fast. When the diva disappears without a trace, Emma takes her place on stage—only to wind up missing soon after. Rye races against the clock to find both women in time. And if he does, will he be able to open his heart and learn to love?
Runaway Hearts is a standalone western historical romance from Alexa Aston's Lawmen of the West series, which features heroes of the American west in various law enforcement positions and the strong heroines who bring love into their lives.
Release date: June 8, 2021
Publisher: Oliver Heber Books
Print pages: 300
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Runaway Hearts (Lawmen of the West Book 1)
New York City—1865
Rye Callahan turned the corner from Anthony Street and found himself back in Paradise Square, the intersection of Five Points in New York. He glanced around at the area known for decades for its flourishing crime rate and houses of ill repute. The streets teemed with people this hot July day. He veered to his right and continued down Cross Street, knowing only two blocks remained until he reached home.
The crowded tenement would never be home again. Not with Bri dead. Nothing would ever be the same without his older brother’s hearty laugh and gentle teasing. The sibling he’d idolized from birth and who’d kept him from a life in the gangs lay buried these past two years in an early grave. Guilt washed over him.
He held a hand up to shield the strong summer sun from his eyes as he stared down the familiar street, laundry hanging from windows and along railings. He’d left for the war a little more than two years ago, already over six feet at age fifteen. The recruiter didn’t ask many questions, not with the draft riots rampant throughout the city. The Union needed soldiers—and not many volunteered two years into a bloody war that looked like it would go on longer than even the politicians predicted.
Rye continued down the street until he arrived at the tenement house. Dread filled him as he entered the darkened building and moved up rickety stairs that might give way any minute under his weight. The smells of old urine, spilled whiskey, and rat droppings assailed his senses.
He climbed to the top floor and hesitated before knocking. He anticipated the greeting he’d receive. His ma would be as cold as a blustery winter’s day. And that was if she were in a good mood. She’d always favored her older son to the extreme. He knew she’d taken Bri’s death hard. Da would be all smiles despite the fact the consumption had set in, rendering him unable to work.
Knocking once, he decided to plunge in and take whatever venom Ma might spew at him. He stepped through the entrance and closed the door behind him.
She looked up from her ironing, a sour look on her lined face. No greeting. No hugs. Just a shrug of a bony shoulder.
“You’re expectin’ to be fed, I’d imagine,” she said brusquely. “Money’s tight. Not much to be had around here. You’d best be on your way. We have no need of you.”
Before he could speak, the door opened. His father shuffled into the single room from the hallway, a bucket of water in his hands. He broke out in a huge grin.
“Rye, me boyo!” He set the bucket down, sloshing water on the floor, ignoring his wife’s rebuke as he folded his son into his arms.
“You’re a sight for sore eyes, that you are.”
Rye saw tears brimming in his da’s eyes and knew they mirrored his own. He wrapped his arms around the old man, frightened by how thin he’d become and how sparse his white hair was.
His ma glared daggers at their reunion. Rye realized she wouldn’t have mentioned her own son’s return to her husband. She now trembled with rage and it exploded. She slammed the iron down.
“How dare you show him any affection, Seamus! He killed our boyo. Our boyo!” She bared her teeth at Rye as if she were a rabid dog. “I can’t stand the sight of you. Get out! And don’t come back.”
Releasing his da, he faced her. “Don’t you know I live with the guilt with every breath I take? That Bri is gone while I’m still here? You can’t hate me anymore than I hate myself, Ma. I relive it over and over. The shot. The pain. Falling to the ground, helpless as a babe. Seeing that damned Johnny Reb charging me, his bayonet flashing in the sun.”
He choked at the battlefield memory. “And Bri. Stepping in the way. Raising his gun to cut the bastard down.”
“Now, now, Boyo,” his father said, patting Rye’s shoulder. “It was always Bri’s way, to look after you. It’s not your fault his gun jammed.”
Rye turned to his da. “But death was meant for me that day. That bayonet should’ve cut me down. Not Bri. At least some lucky Billy Yank got to his gun in time and killed the Reb.”
Harsh laughter bubbled from his ma. “Oh, now that’s priceless, comin’ from you.”
“Sinead. Don’t,” Da begged.
“Don’t? Don’t? I blessed will say my piece, Seamus Callahan and you can’t stop me. I’m tired of all the lies.”
“Please. I beg you.”
Rye saw the utter despair on his da’s face as it crumpled in defeat. He turned back to his ma.
She waved a fist at him. “You, Boyo, are the bastard. The real bastard. You got my only son killed. All he ever did was take care of you. Bri wasn’t your brother, you fool. He was your cousin. We’re not your parents.”
The pit of his belly turned cold. Stunned, he stared at the woman before him, her features twisted in rage and triumph.
“Your aunt, Adeline, is your mother. Your real da knocked her up and then raced off to California to get rich quick. She never heard from the blighter again. She waited and waited but no blighter with a fortune of gold ever showed up to claim you and sweep her away.”
“Aunt Adeline . . . is my ma?”
The woman who’d raised him laughed like a hyena. “The one and only. Took off to look for him, she did, leaving us stuck with her mistake. She wrote one letter after she’d been gone a year and said you were better off without her. Then your da waltzed back and knocked up a few more fools in the neighborhood. Who knows how many bastard brothers you have, with those crazy golden eyes?”
“Enough, Sinead,” said Da, who’d sunk to the floor in misery.
“Enough is right, Seamus. I’ve done more than enough for this bloody bastard and your selfish whore of a sister.” She paused, her eyes narrowing. “When I get back, you better be gone, Zachariah Callahan. Good riddance!”
Sinead Callahan stormed from the room. Rye could hear her stomping down the stairs as he stood rooted to the ground, stunned at what he’d learned. He looked over to the man who’d always been a wonderful father to him.
“I can explain, Rye.”
The silence fell heavily between them as Rye stared at the man who’d become a stranger in mere seconds. At least he now understood why Sinead had treated him as she had all these years.
Because he was a bastard whose parents abandoned him.
He finally summoned his voice. “I trusted you all my life. Loved you. Thought no man could hold a candle to you. And all you did was lie to me. Over and over. Year after year.” Rye shook his head. “I don’t have a father. Especially not you.”
Seamus Callahan looked at him in anguish. He started to speak, and then his hands flew to his chest. He gripped his shirtfront, clawing at it in desperation, then let out a soft moan as he fell over.
Rye knew Sinead Callahan would put the blame of another death squarely on his shoulders. Though he longed to touch the man who’d been his da and give him a last kiss goodbye, Rye refused to honor a liar.
He slipped quietly from the room without a backward glance.
Emma Bradford thanked her father’s valet for bringing in the breakfast tray and dismissed him with an assurance that Dwight Bradford would eat something. As the servant left, she turned to her father.
“Don’t make a bald-faced liar of me, Papa. You must eat. You need to keep up your strength.”
She held up a buttered toast point but he waved it away.
“I’m not hungry, Child.”
Her old friend guilt snuggled up next to her, her constant companion since the carriage accident five years earlier that cost her father the use of his legs.
“What will Cook say? You don’t want to hurt her feelings.”
He gave her a smile. “Cook doesn’t care if I eat or not, as long as she gets paid.”
“That’s a dreadful thing to say, Papa.” She set down the toast and picked up the cup from its saucer. “At least take some coffee. Dr. Kinder believes coffee gives you energy.” She doctored it with sugar and a generous splash of cream.
“Dr. Kinder is an old fool but I’ll take a few sips to please you.”
Emma helped him nurse the hot brew until the cup was emptied, glad at least to get something down him.
“We need to talk, Emma.”
She smiled. “We talk all the time, Papa. About politics. Books. The mill. And I know you love listening to my stories.”
Dwight Bradford closed his eyes, a trace of a smile on his lips. “Ah, my own Scheherazade. Who knows how many stories you’ve invented for me over the years? We’ve important things to discuss, though. I want to talk to you about my will.”
Immediately, Emma lifted her chin. “We’re not going to be morbid.”
“No,” her father assured her. “Merely practical. Louisa has been at me—again—to change my will.” He looked sheepish. “In fact, I may have given her the wrong impression that I actually did.”
She narrowed her eyes. “You know Louisa is not one of my favorite topics. I tried to warn you about that . . . nurse.”
He sighed. “I know. You overheard her talking with her cousin John about marrying me.”
“For your money! She doesn’t love you, Papa.”
His features softened. “Louisa cares for me. In her own way. It’s only right she should be taken care of, the way she’s devoted herself to me in my ill-health.”
“I could have continued to care for you as before,” she pointed out.
“No, Dr. Kinder said with my heart problems on top of the paralysis, I needed constant professional care. Louisa has been attentive to me and my needs.” He gave Emma a fond smile. “Besides, if not for her, how would John have come into your life?”
Emma smiled at the mention of John Fairburn. A distant cousin of her stepmother, she hadn’t trusted John at first, simply because she hadn’t trusted Louisa from the moment they’d met. Moreover, John seemed far too handsome and sophisticated to be interested in someone like Emma.
But she’d had a change of heart in recent weeks, as John started courting her in earnest. Yesterday afternoon in the park, he’d even told her he loved her. The thought caused a thrill to wriggle along her spine.
“You’re right, Papa, as always. It pleases me that John and I met and have grown close.”
He raised his brows. “Close? Has he made certain feelings known to you?”
She nodded. “He says he loves me. And I may just love him.”
Emma thought back to the young man she’d thought she loved five years ago, the one they’d been on their way to see when the horrific carriage accident occurred. It left Emma with a badly broken leg and months of recovery, while Dwight Bradford never walked again.
Had she really been falling in love with Howard, and he with her?
She couldn’t remember her exact feelings, only that after visiting her twice in the weeks after the accident, Howard lost interest and stopped coming. Only a few months later, he became engaged to her good friend, Sarah, who’d known about Emma’s feelings toward Howard.
But that was in her past.
“I know John will do the right thing and help you look after Louisa once I’m gone. She knows I’ve settled a monthly allowance upon her in my will but the bulk of the estate goes to you, my darling girl. I’m only sorry that David is not here to take over at the mill and continue the Bradford name.”
Her heart ached hearing her beloved brother’s name. “David died an honorable death at Gettysburg, Papa. The Union was saved because of men such as David making the ultimate sacrifice.”
“I know but you must go and live your life, Emma. Don’t be tied to me and this house any longer. Follow your heart, dear, whether that means pursuing your music or traveling far and wide.”
He reached for her hand and squeezed it. “Promise me you’ll spread your wings and fly to the moon, my sweet girl. If you wish for John Fairburn to be by your side, then I hope he is as faithful and loving a companion as your mother was to me.”
Another flash of guilt ripped through her at the mention of her mother. After one son and several miscarriages spaced out over a dozen years, Darlena Bradford gave birth to Emma and promptly died two days later from complications after childbirth. Emma did everything she could over the years to make it up to her lonely father, finally silencing her protests when she saw he was dead-set upon marrying his caregiver.
“If John proposes marriage—and I think he may—then I will hopefully capture what you and Mother had together.”
He nodded. “I’d . . . like that.”
She patted his hand, noting how sallow his skin appeared today. “I’ve tired you. You need to get some rest.”
“Stay. For a little while,” he asked.
She sat as he shut his eyes, listening to his labored breathing. Louisa dominated his time in the sickroom, constantly by his side, so to share this rare, uninterrupted moment with him early in the morning was a treat.
Her thoughts scattered in all directions until a loud gasp drew her back to reality. She leaned forward and took his hand, noting how he struggled with each breath. She decided it was time to call for Dr. Kinder when he gripped her hand tightly.
Then his grip loosened. He gave a heavy sigh—and breathed no more.
Tears sprang to her eyes but she felt gratitude in her heart that it was she and not Louisa with him at the end. She sat for several minutes, his hand in hers, allowing the grief to wash over her.
Finally, she composed herself and leaned over to kiss his brow one more time. She couldn’t put it off any longer. She rose to find her stepmother and break the news to her.
Emma thought she might find Louisa at her desk in the library since she often met with Cook at the beginning of each week to plan out the menus. She walked along the carpeted corridor, her heart heavy at the news she would share.
As Emma reached an alcove just off the main stairway, she heard whispers and smiled, despite her heavy heart. Last week, she’d caught her maid, Molly, kissing a footman in the small space and it wasn’t the chaste kiss John had bestowed upon Emma’s lips yesterday. She hoped their butler, Moses, wouldn’t find out about the stolen moments the two servants partook in while secreted in the alcove and dismiss one or the both of them on the spot.
The low, throaty laugh caused her to stop dead in her tracks.
No one in the household had such a suggestive tone when amused.
Emma took a few steps back, grateful for the plush carpeting that muffled any noise from her shoes.
“I’ve tried. Over and over. But the fool refuses to change his will. He assures me I’ll want for nothing but I’m not going to settle for a modest monthly sum that won’t even cover the cost of a few new hats. I’ve put my time in. He owes me more.”
“You don’t have to worry, love. I’ll simply marry Emma. Her money will become mine. And then ours.”
“What if she won’t marry you? If she suspects us? She’s no fool, John.”
“All women are romantic fools, darling. Emma is no exception. And besides . . . accidents do happen.”
Emma heard quiet laughter before a long pause. Then a moan. Disgusted, she reversed her direction and returned to her bedroom.
John and Louisa were lovers. The realization brought a sudden wave of nausea to her. She fought it, not wanting to give in to even a tiny bit of pity. She swallowed hard, forcing down the bile and her wounded pride.
She should have figured it out long ago. They probably weren’t even cousins as they claimed.
Fear filled her. She had no one to turn to. Her father could no longer protect her. She knew John Fairburn would press his suit and try to marry her as soon as her mourning period ended.
If she allowed that to happen, he would kill her. As clever as John was, Emma knew it would appear to be an accident, especially as clumsy as she was. She was known for falling and tripping. All sorts of crazy things had occurred in the past, from breaking her collarbone to twisting her ankle. She’d even run smack into a tree once and chipped her front baby tooth.
She needed to escape. From John and Louisa. From this house. Her father had encouraged her to follow her heart. She intended to do so with the promised inheritance. By this time next week, she planned to be far from Connecticut.
A piercing scream invaded her thoughts. Louisa must have discovered Dwight Bradford’s now-cold body.
Emma helped shepherd the last visitor out the door. The whirlwind of the last few days was close to an end, with her father’s funeral taking place this morning at ten, followed by a small reception in their Connecticut home.
With the final guest taking his leave, the inevitable reading of the will would take place. She reentered the drawing room and catching Daniel Mitchell’s eye, signaled the lawyer with a nod.
He cleared his throat loudly and the servants scurrying around came to a standstill. Louisa looked up from where she languished on a green velvet settee, giving a pout as the attention turned from her. Emma turned away, finding it harder and harder to hide her true feelings about her stepmother.
“I would ask that I be joined in the library at this time for the reading of Mr. Bradford’s will. Mrs. Bradford? Miss Emma? Mr. Stannis? And Moses and Dawson, as well. Would you please accompany me?
John rushed to her side. “Might I join you, Emma?” He gave her a tender look. “I’d like to give you whatever support I can.”
She tamped down the repulsion his nearness brought and gave him a false smile.
“Would you be so kind as to see to Louisa? She hasn’t fared well these past few days. Papa’s death has upset her greatly. I fear she needs a steady hand to walk even a few steps without collapse.”
He bowed. “I will see to Mrs. Bradford at once.”
Emma watched John scurry to his lover’s side. She stifled the anger that raged within her at their deceit. At least they would soon get their comeuppance.
The group assembled in what had been her father’s favorite room until the accident left him bedridden and relegated to an upstairs suite. Filled with over a thousand books and comfortable seating throughout, the library grew to be Emma’s refuge once Louisa’s presence dominated their household. She’d spent many hours here—reading, knitting, and writing in her journal.
She took a place on a gold brocaded sofa as everyone gathered, annoyed when Louisa plopped next to her. John came to stand behind them, his left hand resting on her shoulder. Emma didn’t bother to check if his other comforted Louisa. She was certain it did.
Mr. Mitchell said, “I’ve served as Dwight Bradford’s attorney and business manager for as long as I can remember. We were both wet behind the ears when our business relationship began. I am honored to state that it turned into one of deep, abiding friendship, as well. I shall miss Dwight until my dying day.
“With that being said, let us proceed to the matter at hand.”
Emma watched the firelight dance in the grate as the family attorney read the legal language in a slow, lugubrious tone. He droned on for several minutes before he paused.
“That, in effect, is the legality of the document, so that all present know Dwight Bradford was of sound mind when he executed his will. I shan’t read word-for-word now. Instead, I will simply state in everyday language his bequests. The document itself will be available for perusal at your request, should the need arise.”
Mitchell adjusted his spectacles and smoothed the pages before him. “There are several gifts to local charities that Dwight supported, as well as his church. I won’t go into detail regarding these bequeathals. For every servant in service at Bradford House five years or longer, a small cash amount will be awarded, with a stipulated bonus for each year beyond the five served.”
He glanced at the butler and housekeeper. “To Moses, his butler for over two decades, and Dawson, his housekeeper for even longer, Mr. Bradford provided additional funds to be available upon your retirement from Bradford House so that your golden years will be untroubled by financial worries.”
Both servants nodded. Emma was pleased when Moses shot her a grateful smile, while Dawson gave her a wink.
“As to his mill manager, Ralph Stannis, Mr. Bradford wished for him to continue in his present position and has gifted him with ten percent of the company’s stock, in gratitude for his wise counsel and business acumen.”
“Ten percent?” Louisa hissed under her breath. “What was he thinking?”
Emma sat rock-still. She didn’t want to respond to Louisa’s rude whisperings, knowing all too well the outburst that would soon follow.
“Finally, to his beloved family. To his dear second wife, Louisa, Dwight wished her to live a life of comfort here at Bradford House for the rest of her natural days. She will not be held responsible for any of the maintenance and upkeep of the estate, nor the salaries of the various servants, which will be maintained by the estate itself.
“Mrs. Bradford will keep all her clothing, jewelry, and furs and be given an allowance of two hundred dollars per month to spend as she sees fit. This will continue until her death or remarriage and then said allowance and residence at Bradford House will cease to be provided.”
Louisa drew in a loud, quick breath. Emma saw her clutch her folded hands until they turned white. She didn’t dare look at her stepmother.
Yet Emma thought her father’s provision quite generous. Two hundred dollars would be considered a small fortune, far above what the average worker earned in an entire calendar year. For Louisa to receive that amount each month with no expenses to pay, she would be incredibly well off. Emma also thought it only fair that if Louisa did remarry, her new husband would assume financial responsibility for her.
Still, she could feel the waves of fury emanating from the former nurse. Her stepmother obviously felt more than slighted by the terms of her late husband’s will.
“The remainder of the estate in its entirety shall go to Miss Emmeline Bradford, the only living child of Dwight and Darlena Bradford. This includes the mill and the land it sits upon, Bradford House and its grounds, along with various real estate holdings and stock, both within the company and through other investments Mr. Bradford made over the years.”
John’s hand tightened painfully on her shoulder before it relaxed and gave her a brief squeeze. She saw Louisa ball her fists in her lap and sensed the trembles coming from her.
Mr. Mitchell thanked each of them. The servants and Mr. Stannis made a quick exit, no doubt wishing to be absent from the emotional outburst that would erupt from Louisa’s lips at any moment.
She looked up and saw Mr. Mitchell motion her over. She went to speak privately with him.
“I hope you will consider retaining my services as both attorney and business manager and advisor. Your father’s estate can be complicated at times and you don’t have any practical experience in running a business solely on your own.”
He bestowed a kind smile on her. “Despite that, I know you were your father’s shadow for many years. I realize you know more about the mill and business in general than people might think since you discussed financial decisions with your father over many years. I know you are on first-name terms with most of the workers and that they think highly of you.”
“Rest assured, Mr. Mitchell. I will be making no changes in the near future and am delighted Papa has enticed Mr. Stannis to stay on at the mill. I expect both you and he to be in my employ for many years to come.”
“That’s your first wise business decision, Emma,” he joked. “Your father did mention to me the last time we spoke that you might want to travel in the near future. Is that still the case?”
She nodded. Papa must have known she’d need to escape Bradford House and Louisa’s wrath upon his death.
“There are certainly funds for you to access to do so.” He glanced toward Louisa and John, their heads together as they spoke. “Having a little breathing space as you mourn his death might be a good idea.”
“I plan on taking a trip almost immediately.” She hesitated. “I’d rather Louisa—and John—not know my exact itinerary. Much less my final destination.”
“I’d rather not be overheard at this point.” She leaned in and whispered, “But if you’ll have your carriage just outside Mama’s garden in an hour, you can take me to the train station. I can explain on the way.”
The attorney gave her a fatherly hug. “I’ll be waiting,” he said softly.
She parted from him and Louisa caught her eye. Emma made her way toward her stepmother, her heart racing as the plan was now set in motion.
“Oh, my dearest Emmeline.” Louisa took Emma’s hand. “I’m so glad we have each other for comfort in such a time of sorrow. Loving your papa was simply my entire world. I don’t know where to begin without him.”
Louisa brightened. “But we will be together, my sweet child.” Her low laugh that followed seemed out of place to Emma. “Of course, we are more as sisters than a stepmama and child. There aren’t so many years between us, you know. I plan to be at your side, every step of the way, helping you make whatever decisions you must regarding Dwight’s estate and the mill.”
Emma seethed at her words but put on a look of wonderment. “I’m so surprised Papa left everything to me, Louisa, but surely you can see how he loved you. He’s left you very well off. You won’t have to worry about dull business decisions. I know how talking business bores you.”
Louisa widened her eyes at that statement.
“I, too, shall be here, Emma. You know you may always count on me.” John sidled up to her more than Louisa had, like a purring tabby wishing to be stroked.
Emma wished she could give him a cold shoulder but she didn’t want the pair suspicious of her actions.
“I appreciate your kind words, John.” She frowned and touched her temple. “This day has left me exhausted. I feel a headache coming on. I believe I’ll go to my room for the remainder of the afternoon.”
She smiled politely at them both. “Please feel free to dine without me. I’m not hungry but Molly can always bring me a tray if I change my mind. I’m ready to fall into bed right this moment.”
Louisa kissed her cheek, as did John, and both encouraged her to get her rest. Emma could just imagine what their talk at dinner might be. Or their pillow talk in Louisa’s bed tonight.
She didn’t care. When they awoke in the morning, she’d be long gone.
Hurrying to her room, she threw a few items of clothing into a small carpetbag which she hadn’t wanted to pack earlier. She didn’t want Louisa or any of the servants privy to her planned escape. Her knitting needles and yarn, jewelry, and treasured journal went into her reticule, which already contained close to eighty dollars. That would see her through for the moment. She would arrange with Daniel Mitchell on the way to the train station how to contact him in order to withdraw funds while she traveled.
Emma had thoroughly enjoyed the trip she took with her father throughout Italy and France several years ago. She longed to return to Europe and go to operas, plays, and museums—but that would be what Louisa might expect. Instead, she’d decided to head in the opposite direction.
To the American West.
She was ready for adventure and new experiences. She’d heard cities such as San Francisco and Denver were thriving cosmopolitans, already bursting with culture and business. She’d go to both cities and see what they held. Maybe she could continue her voice lessons there or even take up painting, something that interested her.
A slight tap on the door sounded and Molly slipped in.
“I’m here to pack your trunk, Miss Emma. I know to keep it well out of sight from the likes of her.” The maid sniffed. “I’ll bring it to New York with me tomorrow afternoon. Have you decided where you’ll be?”
“Papa used to stay at Astor House when he went into the city for business. I’m sure he’s mentioned it to Louisa so she’d think of that. The Metropolitan and The Fifth Avenue Hotels are far too well known so I’ve decided to stay at The Gilsey at Broadway and East Twenty-ninth.”
She opened her lingerie drawer and withdrew a sealed envelope. “In this is money for your train ticket into the city and other incidentals. Be sure you pack your things in my trunk. That way we’ll only have the one to deal with.”
Molly took the envelope and slipped it inside her blouse. “I’m excited . . . but just a bit scared, Miss Emma.”
She hugged the maid. “Truth be told, I am, too. Pack lightly. We can buy whatever we need once we arrive.”
“Where are we off to?” Molly smiled. “I might need to let a certain footman know.”
Emma shook her head. “All in good time, Molly. There’s no sharing to be done now. You can write a letter to him once we’ve reached our destination.”
She turned and retrieved her carpetbag. “Remember, bring up a tray for me when they dine so they’ll think I’m still here. Do the same for breakfast. Tell anyone who asks in the morning that I’m still doing poorly. You can even mention that I need the time to grieve.”
Checking the watch pinned to her blouse, Emma slipped her reticule over her wrist. “I’ve got to hurry in order to make my train. Check the hallway, Molly.”
Her trusted servant opened the door and looked both ways. “All clear, Miss Emma.”
The two women flew down the corridor. Emma thought her beating heart might leap from her chest. Its drumming almost pained her. They reached the back staircase and sailed silently down the carpeted stairs. When they reached the bottom, Emma shot across to the small parlor.
The room had belonged to her mother. She caught up on her correspondence there. Planned menus. Sent invitations to friends. But more importantly, French doors opened onto a small garden. Her mother had loved flowers and opened those doors often, allowing the scent of roses to waft through.
Without a backward glance, she opened the door leading outside, trusting Molly to close it behind her. Emma raced along the edge of the path to an almost hidden gate and pushed it open. She looked up and saw Daniel Mitchell’s waiting carriage as expected. Fastening the gate, she hurried toward it. The coachman assisted her up the steps and closed the door.
As she fell into the seat and expelled a long breath, the lawyer chuckled.
“I do believe this is the second best decision you’ve made today, Emma Bradford.”
New York City—1878
Rye Callahan breathed in the familiar smells of New York. He’d left the city behind thirteen years earlier and never looked back. That day, a tired boy of seventeen returning home from a bloody war discovered his parents were actually his aunt and uncle. What Rye learned from a cruel Sinead Callahan about his true origins one long-ago afternoon changed his life forever.
The war taught him to think fast on his feet. He’d left the only home he’d known without a backward glance, carrying with him guilt over causing his cousin’s death and possibly being responsible for his uncle dropping dead before his eyes. The pain inside him remained raw, never healing. He’d decided from that moment on never to let himself get close to another soul.
But at least he’d found a purpose in life.
Rye headed to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency’s New York branch, wondering what his next case might involve. The summons from The Eye himself led Rye to believe it must be important. Alan Pinkerton usually allowed his two superintendents, George Bangs and Francis Warner, to assign cases. The Eye still enjoyed being out in the field, supervising agents and bringing outlaws to justice. For him to wire Rye to hand off his current investigation to another agent in Wyoming and return at once to the New York office made him extremely curious.
He turned the corner and spied a familiar head of curly blond hair heading down the street from the opposite direction. They reached the office building at the same time.
“Well, son of a gun! If it isn’t Zachariah Callahan in the flesh.”
Rye broke into a wide grin and pumped the man’s large hand. “Eddie McLeod. It’s been ages. I see you’ve grown a beard.”
McLeod slapped him on the back. “You’ve made quite a name for yourself, Rye. Last time I was in Chicago, George wouldn’t stop raving about you. Sounds like you’re the number one investigator in his book.”
“Ah, Eddie, no one could ever take your place. You taught me everything I know about being a Pink.”
They both paused and then chanted in unison.
“Accept no bribes. Never compromise with criminals. Partner with local law enforcement agencies. Refuse divorce cases or cases that initiate scandal.”
Both men laughed as Rye continued, “Turn down reward money. Never raise fees without the client’s pre-knowledge.”
“And keep clients apprised on an on-going basis,” finished Eddie. “The Pinkerton Code. Verbatim.”
Rye gave his friend and mentor a hug and they entered the building and started up the staircase.
“Are you still working mostly out of Chicago?” Rye asked.
Eddie nodded. “Lately, I’ve been investigating a series of shipping thefts for Midwestern railways. The Rock Island. The Illinois Central. I hear you’ve been out west chasing bank and train robbers.”
“For the last couple of years. That’s why I was surprised to get a summons to come all the way to New York for briefing on a case assignment.”
Eddie’s brows arched. “Really? Same here. Sounds as if we’ll work this case together.”
They arrived at the offices and entered. Immediately greeted, they were taken to a large conference room and given coffee and pastries. Left alone, they reminisced for several minutes on how they’d met during the Great Fire of seventy-one and other cases they’d worked together before being sent their separate ways.
“Good morning, gentlemen. It’s good to see the two of you.”
Rye turned as Francis Warner entered the room. They greeted Warner, who invited them to sit.
“I’m sure you’re speculating what your new case is about.”
“We’ll both be working together?” asked Eddie.
“Yes,” Warner replied. “You’ll be bodyguards for an Italian opera singer, Renata Abetelli. She’s scheduled to perform in Denver at a brand-new opera house. Once the Denver run ends, the touring company may hit a few other towns in Colorado, such as Pueblo or Georgetown, before heading to San Francisco. They’ll return by way of Salt Lake.”
“What are we protecting Miss Abetelli from?” Rye asked.
“The manager of the touring company is worried about the reputation of the Wild West. News of train robberies and bank robbers and cattle thieves has made its way to Europe. Ivar Larsen, the manager, is concerned with Miss Abetelli’s safety. While he wishes to bring culture to the far west, he wants to be sure his star is protected at all times.”
“I’ve actually been to the opera several times in both Colorado and California,” Rye noted. “Several Italian and German companies have come through in the last few years. Opera’s the rage these days. I haven’t heard of Miss Abetelli, though.”
Eddie grunted. “Opera has no appeal for me. Give me a good Shakespearean comedy or vaudeville any day.”
“They have those, too,” Rye assured him. “Just because it’s called an opera house doesn’t mean only opera is performed there. The venues host plays and a variety of entertainment. Some towns even hold community meetings in their local opera houses.”
Warner leaned back and lit a cigar. “The Eye happens to be friends with the owner of the establishment. Mr. Devinde’s place is new and in direction competition with both Forrester and Turner Halls. He’s been able to get this foreign company in for a song, mostly because Larsen is practically broke.”
He puffed on the cigar a moment before continuing. “Seems Renata Abetelli is the reason they’re so down and out. She’s incredibly temperamental. She claims to be sick often and cancels performances on a whim. But she and Larsen need the money, so they’ve booked this American tour. I don’t know much about it but it seems Americans gobble up anything cultural if it’s European. Opera’s no exception. She’s finishing up a series of performances tonight at the Academy of Music Opera House. I have tickets for you both to attend. You’ll meet Miss Abetelli and Mr. Larsen backstage afterward.”
Warner laughed, a twinkle in his eyes. “I’m sure you’ll form an opinion of Miss Abetelli . . . very quickly.”
Renata Abetelli could certainly sing, thought Rye.
He watched the soprano as the close of Verdi’s Ernani played out on the stage in front of him. Abetelli sang the role of the heroine, Elvira, and she had now fallen, grief-stricken, over Ernani’s poisoned—and very dead—body.
He looked at a glazed-eyed Eddie McLeod seated on his right and leaned close.
“Have you perfected the art of sleeping without closing your eyelids?”
His friend gave a sheepish shrug as the audience erupted in applause and the orchestra music swelled.
“Three men all in love with one fickle female? Plus, all that quarreling and shouting in Italian? They seemed like damned idiots to me. At least, that’s what I got from it. And look—she destroyed them all in the end.”
“Or they destroyed each other,” commented Rye as they rose and joined in the thunderous applause being showered upon Renata Abetelli and her fellow castmates.
For her part, Renata deigned to give the audience a small smile full of secrets. She blew kisses to the crowd as tossed flowers fell at her feet on the stage. The soprano leaned over and swept one up, waving it triumphantly above her head. Then she gave a smart nod and waltzed off the stage.
Two more curtain calls followed before he and Eddie could make their way backstage. He thought the madhouse behind the scenes made a Civil War battle seem tame.
Rye fought his way through the crowds, Eddie on his heels. After getting directions from a stagehand, they arrived at Renata Abetelli’s dressing room.
He rapped his knuckles hard against the door so it could be heard over all the noise.
It opened a crack. Then a little wider. A short, plump woman with iron-gray hair and a slight moustache gave him a withering look.
“I’m Rye Callahan.” He gestured to his companion. “This is Edward McLeod. We’re with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and have an appointment with Miss Abetelli.”
The woman glared a full ten seconds before speaking. “You wait.” She shut the door.
Rye leaned against the doorjamb. “Ivar Larsen thinks he needs us as bodyguards? That pit bull of a woman could keep Jesse James on the straight and narrow.”
“You are correct, sir. Are you Mr. Callahan or Mr. McLeod?”
Rye turned and saw a rail-thin man with pale blue eyes and a white mustache that matched his equally white hair.
“Mr. Larsen, I presume?”
The man nodded.
“I’m Rye Callahan.” He motioned to his companion. “This is Eddie McLeod. We’ve been assigned to accompany you and Miss Abetelli to Denver and beyond. We would like to discuss security for the trip, as well as the time your company will spend in Denver.”
Larsen gave a curt nod. “Of course. The guard dog at the door will become very familiar to you. Rozalia Cattaneo is Miss Abetelli’s dresser. Actually, her nursemaid from childhood, so they’ve been close for many years. And yes, she’s a cane da guardia. Guard dog, you would say in English.”
The door opened again, this time fully. Rozalia Cattaneo gave them a sour look but nodded and motioned them with a wave of her hand. Larsen stepped in first, followed by the Pinkerton agents. The dresser swiftly shut the door again.
Rye looked around, having never been in a backstage dressing room. Obviously, this one was intended for a star due to its size and tasteful decor. A large camelback divan in rich brown velvet looked as inviting as two wingback chairs facing it. A small coffee table rested between the furniture. Atop it was a tray of fruit and small sandwiches. Next to it rested a teapot. Bouquets of fresh flowers filled the room. He scratched his nose at the overwhelming scent as he sensed a sneeze coming on as the men seated themselves.
“Roz! My tea! I mustn’t parch my throat after such a draining performance.”
Out from behind another door swept Renata Abetelli in a peach silk dressing gown that shimmered, her hair and stage makeup still intact from the performance. Rye thought up close it looked garish but he understood that the singer would appear washed out under the extreme lighting if not made up heavily.
She paused in her tracks, her mouth opening into a perfect O-shape. Then it closed as she studied them. He and Eddie stood, as did Larsen.
“Renata, darling, these are the two men from the Pinkerton Agency. They will accompany us on the train to Denver and remain the length of your performances there for Mr. Devinde.”
Her mouth pursed. Rye couldn’t tell if it was showing disdain or disapproval but the soprano didn’t seem happy.
“They are to protect me, yes? From the evils found in this backward country?”
Rye bristled at her remark. He’d fought and bled for this nation. He didn’t appreciate anyone disparaging it. Above all, however, Pinkertons were to treat their clients with the utmost respect.
He smoothly said, “We’re here to serve as your eyes and ears, Miss Abetelli. We’ll protect you from everyone—even overzealous fans—and assure you the privacy you need. Your performance should always come first so you are to concentrate on that. Mr. Larsen will focus on the business end of things. We’ll handle everything else.”
“And you are?” She eyed him with more interest as she came closer. Rye thought for a moment that she inspected him as a sweet she’d like to pop into her mouth.
“My name is Zachariah Callahan, but I go by Rye. This is Edward McLeod, known as Eddie. We are highly trained and accomplished at what we do, Miss Abetelli. We will not fail you. Failure is not in our vocabulary.”
She shrugged. “Very well.” She looked at Larsen with a question in her eyes. “Must I be concerned with details, Ivar?”
“I’ll handle everything with these gentlemen. Both men will travel on the train with us, Renata, but only one will stay close by there and when we arrive at our destination. The other is what Mr. Pinkerton has deemed our ace up the sleeve.”
She frowned. “I do not understand this ace.”
Rye cleared his throat. “It’s a gambling term, Miss Abetelli. Sometimes gamblers cheat at cards and will conceal an ace—the best card to hold—up their sleeve. No other player knows it’s there. If the gambler feels he needs to play it to come out ahead, he will. And hope he doesn’t get caught cheating.
“What Mr. Pinkerton intends is for one of us to remain near you at all times. The other will be in the area or roam about, be it on the train or the theater itself, possibly working among the crew. No one will know that agent works for you. He might hear or see a threat and be able to act upon it accordingly since no one knows he’s connected to your protection detail.”
“Hmm. I like this sleeve ace.” She brightened and pointed at him. “You shall be my ace, Mr. Callahan. I will enjoy this idea of a secret protector.” She gave him a seductive smile and reached for a cup of hot tea the dresser had poured for her. She took a slow sip, her eyes large above the rim, never leaving his.
“I go now. I will see you tomorrow.”
The trio of men waited as she and the dresser left the room then took their seats again.
Larsen gave them a thin smile. “So, Mr. Callahan, you shall be our ace.” He withdrew an envelope from his inner jacket pocket. “Here are your tickets for tomorrow morning’s train. I shall see you then. Mr. Pinkerton himself assured me that even I would not be encumbered with the details. You men have free rein as you see fit. We will comply with whatever you ask. Within reason, of course.”
They shook hands and the agents left the dressing room.
Eddie looked at him. “So, you’re the Sleeve Ace,” he teased.
“That makes Renata Abetelli your official responsibility,” Rye answered with a grin.
“No, my friend,” Eddie corrected. “She’s our official responsibility.”
“More like our pain in the ass,” Rye noted.
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